When I pulled out of the cheap motel I had spent the night in the outskirts of Charlotte, NC, I couldn’t wait to hit the road. But first, I had to refuel. I grabbed some gas at the gas station, and spied a McDonald’s across the way. Say what you will about them, but they are reliable, if nothing else. I grabbed a sausage biscuit and coffee and hit the road.
It wasn’t all that good. Again – reliable, though. Like, you know how bad it’s gonna be in advance, and can brace yourself for it. And as often happens when I eat a food that is filled with memories, I reflect on previous meals I have had with that same food. And perhaps no food has more memories attached to it for me, in as many places, as do biscuits.
My momma didn’t make biscuits. Heresy, I know, but she wasn’t a natural cook. She married way too young, after a childhood of moving often as part of a military family. She had no traditions when she married dad. Dad’s mom died shortly after that. And we had to make it on our own, with nothing but church cookbooks, Southern Living, some elderly neighbors that loved us, and the back of boxes to guide us.
Mom never really enjoyed cooking. It was a thing she did, but you got no feeling she derived any pleasure from the act, nor appreciated the attention that comes from doing it well. It was a chore to be done, like washing the dishes or sweeping the floor, and gave her about as much pleasure as either of those tasks.
But Dad – now Dad could make a hell of a biscuit. Big, fluffy cathead biscuits, big as your fist. He didn’t do it often, but when he did, they were amazing. I remember weekend mornings when Dad would make breakfast – rarely, because when he worked for the gas company he worked Saturday mornings, and up until 14 or so we went to church regular as a family (one day, I’ll have to tell you the story of why we stopped. Or maybe not – some things are best handled around a table, late into the night). But when he did, you knew you were about to get fed. As a child, he taught me to make biscuits and scrambled eggs, because then you could always feed yourself for cheap, he told me.
My mom’s stepmother was a tiny woman who had grown up in the city, and while she loved me fiercely, she couldn’t make a biscuit. When we would go visit them in the summertime outside Dallas Texas, she would make sausage gravy and whop-em biscuits – called that because to open the can, you whopped em on the side of the counter – and they were a novelty for us. They were the cheap canned biscuits, small and round and flat topped, with a layered nature one never saw in a real biscuit. It almost felt like eating desert.
In the Marines, the mess hall would have biscuits, but they were square, for some reason known only to God and the Commandant, and I’m sorry, but you can’t really enjoy a square biscuit, even if it didn’t taste of too much baking powder, which these did.
Some years back, Renee got a biscuit cookbook and learned how to make amazing biscuits, a lot like the ones Dad made all those years ago. And they are huge and puffy and have little peaks and knobs, and because they are made with love and practice by someone who loves me, I love them.
But my platonic ideal of a biscuit is none of those.
Her name was Montaree, but we all called her Aunt Monty (pronounced Ain’t Monny). She and her husband Doc lived in a 900 square foot house they built on three acres my grandmother sold them at a time when our money was tight. My Aunt Louise’s husband had built and wired the house for them, and it had pine floors with amber shellac. And growing up, they played the role in my life grandparents would have traditionally, had my folks not all died off when I was little.
Monty made biscuits every morning of her life up until Doc died and she moved to be with her son in Jackson. But that wouldn’t be until after I left – my whole childhood, she made biscuits. She had a five-gallon sized metal bucket, with a tight fitting lid, she kept in the cabinet under the counter that she kept her flour in – self-rising flour bought in 25 pound sacks made from cloth, that had a dish towel that came with it as a premium. I don’t think she ever had a purpose bought dish towel.
She had a large bowl not used for anything other than biscuit making, and she would scoop out flour from the bucket, and put it in the bowl, making a depression in the middle of the pile of flour, into which she took a small lump of lard in the winter (after hog killing) or shortening in the summer (after the lard ran out) and massaged it all in, so it looked like corn meal when she was done. To this she added sweet milk a splash at a time until it was right, and then massaged it into a wad of dough.
She then floured the countertop and patted out the dough until it was thin and used a tin can with the ends cut out (that resided in the flour bucket, along with the biscuit bowl when not in use) to cut out the biscuits. She would place the biscuits on a small cookie sheet, perhaps 8×16, that was so old its origins were lost to history, and before putting them in the oven would smear a light coat of whatever grease she was using, lard or shortening, on top.
I must have watched her do it a hundred times. There would always be scraps of dough left over, which she would fashion into a small freeform biscuit that was meant for me. These were not elegant biscuits. They were not even all that pretty. They were flat, perhaps ¾ of an inch thick, the size of a regular tin can, with none of the knobs and bumps of the biscuits Dad made, and which I saw in magazines. They were lightly browned on the bottom and golden on the edges of the top, and had a crumb that reminds one visually, but not texturally, of English muffins.
These were not fancy biscuits but daily biscuits, which fed a well digger for 50 years and were literally their daily bread. It was the bread with their meals – they were made fresh and eaten hot for lunch, their big meal, and leftovers were eaten cold at supper and for breakfast. I can close my eyes and smell the hot bread and the plum jelly, made from the wild plums by the clothesline, and feel the melting butter run over my fingers and drop off my chin.
I love to cook. I derive pleasure from it, and pleasure from being good at it, and while I can make a passable biscuit, I have never been able to make a biscuit like Monty’s. Lord knows I’ve tried. Hell, I’ve never even seen another one like it.
I guess those biscuits will just have to live in my memory. But this fall, I did plant some wild plums out by the fence line, so at least one day I can have some decent jelly.