Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pass the Biscuits, Please!

My cousin, Carlene, posted a picture of a pan of biscuits that she'd made - and if I could have, I would have reached right through the screen and helped myself to a couple of them; they looked that good and that inviting.
A conversation ensued about biscuits and who could make them, and did, and who couldn't but wanted to (me) and who would rather just enjoy them (all of us). Carlene's mother, my Aunt Margaret, could  and apparently did, make homemade biscuits regularly. My mother made them every day - and as the kids grew up and left home, eventually weened it down to once every other day or once every two days. In between the days she made them we had leftover biscuits. For breakfast they were sliced in half and dotted with margarine and slid under the broiler for biscuit toast. Typically those were served with homeade blackberry jam. My daddy always fussed about the seeds getting under his dentures. Tenacious as he was, he simply got up, rinsed them off, and put them back in before sitting down for the next one.

Carlene's biscuits served to remind me of how hard our mothers worked to keep us fed... and how much we take for granted today.

Sometimes there wasn't a loaf of bread in our house. If there was, sometimes it would just be the heels of the bread and no one wanted them... As kids, you just barely tolerated the crust on the edge of the bread and there was NO way you were going to break down and eat of piece of bread that was nothing but crust.
So if we were hungry, we went to the little green bread/biscuit keeper and got a biscuit. If there was a slice of fatback or ham left over from supper or breakfast, we tucked it into the biscuit, squirted a little yellow mustard in there for company, and off we went. Sometimes we buttered and jellied it, and that was good too. The neighborhood kids always came to our house for biscuits. None of the other moms made them, I guess. I know that the Kennedy's had loaf bread. I was treated to a chicken leg wrapped in a slice of Sunbeam bread one day for lunch there... I'd never had it like that before and it was the best chicken leg I ever ate!

For my mom, opening a can of biscuits and popping them in the oven wasn't an option. Thank goodness! (sorry Mom, I know it would have been easier but it wouldn't have been nearly as good!)

We grew up on biscuits and cornbread - from scratch. I hear people talking about biscuits and milk gravy as if it were some kind of gourmet dish. For us it was a staple. Now you can buy the powdered gravy mix in the grocery store, beside the other gravy mixes and chili mixes. I've never bought one, and never intend to. I'm pretty sure there could be no comparison to the real thing... and I've had plenty of it as a child. There were two kinds of gravy in our house. Milk gravy and red-eye gravy. If Mom had fried sausage for breakfast, she used the sausage grease and some flour and a can of evaporated milk to make the gravy, and that was sausage gravy - breakfast gravy. She crumbled up three or four sausage patties in it, and that was served over homemade biscuits. There wasn't any of that 'sausage flavored' business. You knew you had a hunk of sausage in that gravy - you didn't have to stir around to find it either. That was heaven. If it was supper time, it was plain milk gravy and it was served over rice, or mashed potatoes.  If she fried ham for breakfast, the ham grease was left in the pan and a pot of hot, strong coffee was added, stirred, and that was ladled over grits, and biscuits. Red-eye gravy was my daddy's favorite. I wasn't extremely fond of it although I did eat it and would eat it again.
I remember going into the sunshine yellow kitchen on Dewey Hill and sitting at the table next to daddy. He'd already had his breakfast of ham, biscuits and gravy and was sipping the rest of his coffee. He drank his coffee black, but he would slide his saucer over to me, along with the little sugar bowl, and the canned milk, and poured some of his coffee in the saucer for me. No cup. I drank it right out of the saucer! That was almost as good as a dish of ice cream! It was sweet, and warm, and creamy, and it was coffee - ' an adult beverage'.

The breakfast of a king and his little princesses was biscuits, gravy, jelly and creamy, warm, sweet coffee.

Once my older sister was working for a restaurant that was going to host the cast of Land of The Giants. For some reason they were coming to Charleston. My sister had the idea of making little miniscule sized biscuits for the cast and crew... and Mama spent at least half a day it seemed making a hundred or more penny sized biscuits. My sister later reported that my mother's biscuits were the star of the show. And there were none left over.

Thank you Carlene for taking such a simple pan of biscuits and turning them into a trip down memory lane.
They looked wonderful and I swear I could almost smell them;  that tangy saltiness of the buttermilk and the warm buttery crust ...

I still like my coffee sweet, and creamy and hot. I still love biscuits and gravy, and if I only had one thing that I could go back and ask my mother to teach me it would be how to make biscuits like hers. They were soft and light, and tasty, and delicious! I can only tell you that she used Red Band flour, buttermilk, and lard. Armor Star lard.

You can't find lard in the supermarket in the oils and shortening aisle anymore. I had to go into the ethnic aisle and found it next to the Masa and corn husks, but find it I did, and I bought it.

Now if I could just figure out how she made those golden, warm, buttermilk biscuits... I'm convinced that it isn't something you could read and do like a cake recipe. Not biscuits like hers - there was never a recipe book in front of her. She made them from scratch and she made them from memory, in a big wooden bowl and without biscuit cutters or a rolling pin. She kneaded the dough in the bowl, and pinched the biscuits off, rolled them, patted them into the pan, put her three fingerprint pat on them to press them, and into the oven they went... all seemingly without thought!

I can't complain that I don't have any biscuits. I can buy some fairly decent ones from the store in the frozen food section. It's easy enough to preheat the oven and pop them in for 12-15 minutes or so...And I can make some mean sausage gravy - I'm always 'volunteered' to make the gravy for our contractor breakfasts. I'm told it tastes "authentic - like the real thing!" (It is!)  But I'd give anything I own today to go back to my Mama's kitchen on Dewey Hill, and stand in the chair next to her so I could see her while she worked, and watch, and learn, how to make those biscuits!