"Biscuits," he said. "Biscuits?" I asked. "Yeah, biscuits," he said. "I want to learn how to make biscuits, the kind my grandmother made." My jaw dropped a bit. This bachelor friend of ours sitting across the lunch table was revealing a side that caught me off guard. He's regularly decked out in crisp, starched shirts that fit the rather starchy business he's in. The idea of a guy up to his elbows in flour and shortening was hard to imagine. (Actually, it's impossible to imagine the woman in my own household up to her elbows in flour and shortening either.)
This fellow went on to relate the fond memories he has from a childhood spent helping on his grandfather's farm and of the luscious, fluffy, butter-dripping biscuits his grandmother whipped up every morning to start the day. At our farm, my mom made biscuits at least twice a day, and lunch was often a slice of tomato or onion with mayonnaise stuffed inside a split biscuit.
Our friend's grandmother and my mom made biscuit making look easy. It was all done without measuring anything, and neither of them, when asked, could tell exactly how much it took of the flour, shortening, buttermilk, baking powder and salt that went into them. How often I watched my mom's back in the kitchen as her hands flew over the mixing bowl, left to grab one ingredient, then right for another. It was mystery and magic when she turned then and slid a jellyroll pan filled edge-to-edge with circles of floured dough into the hot oven. When done, those 24 were gone in a heartbeat, slathered with her homemade jellies or used to sop up gravy or pot liquor. And how my dad loved his biscuits and sorghum syrup, the food of the gods to him.
I've got a book I'm going to lend our bachelor friend. It's everything he'll ever want to know about making biscuits, but I doubt he'll find a recipe or a technique that perfectly matches his grandmother's. That's because recollections of her freshly made biscuits are bound tight with memories a grown man has of the warmth of a grandmother's embrace, the camaraderie he felt working side-by-side with a beloved grandfather and a child's everyday love affair with life in the country: hunting, fishing, riding horses and tending a garden.
The book is "Southern Biscuits" by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart for which the acclaimed Georgia writer Terry Kay wrote the foreword. He says his own mom, mother of 12, made biscuits three times a day, and "No one on earth made them better." After her death late in life, he writes that his dad tried once - only once - to make her biscuits, a disastrous affair, and he wrote the scene into the beloved "To Dance with the White Dog," repeated in the foreword for the biscuit cookbook. In the end, his dad's biscuits "were not edible. They were flat and hard... He put one in front of the dog and the dog sniffed and looked up at him sadly and trotted away."
In "Southern Biscuits," you'll find the history of biscuits, first made only with flour and water and called "hardtack," food that travelers found easy to pack. Potash first used as a leavening agent was replaced by baking powder in the 1800s, and when it was added to the flour and water and shaped into rounds, the "biscuit" was born.
Dupree and Graubart write that cooks thereafter replaced water with any wet ingredient of their choice: sweet milk, buttermilk, butter, lard, sour cream, shortening, yogurt or cream. You'll find a recipe or two using either Coca-Cola or ginger ale, as well. Water, should you choose it, will produce a "crisper, sturdier biscuit," they tell us. Chicken broth is used to create a biscuit topping for chicken pie or dumplings in chicken soup.
There are as many types of biscuits as there are words to describe them, the authors suggest: "fat, skinny, crumbly, tender, moist, tall, hard, stuffed, flavored, short, tart, blousy, tiny, sweet, cheesy or creamy." They searched far and wide for innovative uses for leftover biscuits, if you can imagine there being any left over: Try splitting and frying them in a little bacon grease or toasting them to be eaten with variety butters, crumbling them into overnight soufflés and casseroles, as stuffing for poultry or vegetables or a thickener for a tomato casserole. There's a recipe for Tomato Biscuit Soup and Biscuit Panzanella Salad. Bread puddings and Brown Betties can be made with biscuits, as well.
By now, our friend's head will be reeling. All he wants is a simple, Southern biscuit! Let's not get complicated. So see page 56, fella.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.