Annie Collins made biscuits every day. But when her granddaughter tries to duplicate them, she finds her memory as flawed as those biscuits were flawless.
I come from a long line of biscuit eaters. Ask anyone who grew up in the South, where the biscuit is considered its own food group, and you are likely to hear this. However, the eating of biscuits is not the activity in question (you can always find the eaters) but rather the making of biscuits. This is an art form in need of preservation since, like much good Southern lore, it is something that for the most part has been handed down in the oral tradition. You talk about how to make biscuits; you talk while you go through the steps of making them; and then you talk in between and all around eating them.
Some of my best memories are of being perched on my grandmother's kitchen counter, the tiny room bright with summer sunlight, while she mixed and kneaded and talked in a voice barely audible over the slap and roll of dough. I don't remember any cookbooks spread out on the counter. As a matter of fact, I remember her having only one cookbook, its spine broken and held together with a big rubber band, its pages stuffed with coupons. I think we assumed that all of her secrets were housed there and that she had simply memorized them for convenience. Well, she had them memorized, that's for sure, but there is no book anywhere that can teach what she had come to know after years of almost daily practice, starting as a girl growing up on a farm out in the middle of Robeson County, North Carolina. I have tried throughout my life to make biscuits that taste like the ones she made, but have never succeeded. Of course a good recipe helps, and you must start with the right ingredients, but I have come to believe that biscuits depend on the sense of touch more than anything else. Bill Neal, the late Southern chef I rely on to fill in the gaps of my memory, wrote that biscuits, "like all baking but more so, are in the hands, not the head."
I'm back in my grandmother's house now, a hot, melt-in-your-mouth biscuit in hand. I dip it in redeye gravy, pull it apart and lay a piece of salty fried country ham inside (this is not to be confused with regular ham of any variety). Or, while the steam still rises, I put a big pat of butter within and trap it there to melt. For dessert, I pour dark Karo syrup into a bowl and then whip in butter to make a smooth cinnamon-bronze sauce for dipping. Crème brûlée or tiramisu or what-have-you, there's no dessert that can match biscuits with Karo syrup. But however you slice it, you need that biscuit.
My mother tried to bake biscuits many times during my childhood, telephone cord stretching, receiver wedged under her floured chin as my grandmother talked her through it. The rest of the family got excited at the prospect of biscuits in our own home and crowded around the hot oven to greet what invariably came out looking like something Elly May Clampett had made for the rest of the Beverly Hillbillies: A dentist's dream. A leavened doorstop.
How could it be? My mother had mastered my grandmother's vegetable soup (my other goal in life), her pound cake (the secret ingredient is Crisco), even her famous fried apple pies. But never the biscuit. Thus leaving me to my quest, a practice that takes me back to my grandmother's kitchen in hope of recreating it all just right.
I give myself the morning sunlight, curtains stirred by a slight breeze under the shade of an ancient pecan tree that, come fall, would provide my most lucrative childhood job: a penny a nut. I can picture the porch, the oleanders in bloom and the little market across the street. I place my grandmother there in front of me, her dark cotton frock sprinkled with flour, her back held erect by the corset I watched her lace up hundreds of times, on her feet the practical and plain-looking shoes that could walk downtown or out into the garden. She is singing hymns one after another while she sifts and pours and kneads and rolls. I recall all the words to all of those old hymns, but what were her hands doing? Here my memory fast-forwards and I see myself sitting in front of her black-and-white television watching Roy Rogers and SkyKing.
So back I go again, with Bill Neal as my guide. I start with the sifter, the very one that my grandmother used for over 50 years. Here's the first of many secrets to the Southern biscuit: You need Southern flour. White Lily flour from Knoxville, Tennessee, comes highly recommended, as does Red Band, which is what I recall seeing on my grandmother's counter. Then you have to locate the real contraband item: lard. Vegetarians, take note: When you are offered a real Southern biscuit, there is most likely animal fat within. Crisco can be substituted for lard, though flavor is lost. Butter can be substituted for Crisco, though texture is lost. Who would ever have guessed that today, living far from home, in Massachusetts, I would look back on lard with great fondness? My grandmother always had it on hand; it was a staple in the kitchen and was also used for medicinal purposes. When I had chapped lips or chapped hands, she would instruct me to go into her bathroom, where I would find a little bowl of tallow. (She pronounced it tallah, which sounded so much prettier than it was.) I was in college before I realized that I had often greased various parts of my body with animal fat. No wonder cats and dogs gravitated to me; I was a walking ham bone.
Again, I try to picture what my grandmother did next. I can see her sleeves rolled up as she pushes and pulls, squeezes and rolls the dough. A douse of buttermilk, but how much? I don't think my grandmother intended for me to miss all the secrets so that I never really learned to duplicate what she did so easily. For her, it was the simplest thing in the world, and when my mother complained about the difficulty in making a perfect biscuit, my grandmother simply shook her head and laughed as if that was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. For her, difficult was frying chicken—not the actual frying, of course, but catching the chicken, wringing its neck, bleeding, scalding, plucking, cutting. She claimed to be unable to eat it once all that work was behind her. The same applied to the headcheese she made. I remember taking a taxi across the river to buy a big hog's head and watching her take it apart in her kitchen sink. I was curious, and though it made me feel sick, I had to keep looking. Of course baking biscuits was simple to her! It was woven into her life as a natural thread.
And maybe this is why when trying to recall how she did it, I see a hog's head or a plucked chicken in the sink. And maybe that's why I concentrate on other aspects of the process: her songs, her stories, the lush shrubs and flowers and fruit trees that surrounded her property. I personally think that my grandmother's masterpieces had a lot to do with lard, Red Band flour, hymns, pecan trees, Southern sunlight and a host of relatives who could not imagine a meal at her house without them. Just as it is said that we all have a novel buried within us, I think we all have a biscuit recipe waiting to be discovered. I have to believe that one of these days, I'll get there: the perfect biscuit. It all simply comes down to a lot of dedication, a little bit of faith, the size of your bowl, the temperature of your oven, the time of day, the phase of the moon and the tilt of the earth.
Jill McCorkle's most recent book is Final Vinyl Days, a story collection (Algonquin).