Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Bread of the Grandmothers Project Part 2: Grandmother’s Biscuits

This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Find Part 1 here and Part 3 here.

As I explained in a previous post, I have embarked on a bread-baking project to honor two of my female ancestors and, by association, all the women whose DNA I carry and on whose shoulders I stand. This post details my adventure in biscuit-making, just the way my grandmother did it.

My Maternal Grandmother
My maternal grandparents, James and Noreen Crews,
on the front step of their farmhouse
My maternal grandmother learned to make biscuits as a young girl. This ability was a basic life skill for her, an expected activity for girls and women in the rural South in the early part of the 20th century. First her father then, after she was married, her husband expected freshly-baked bread on the table at every meal, three times a day, 365 days a year. She started out baking her daily bread in a wood stove and eventually graduated to a gas oven, but her recipe never changed.

When I was that young I called her Nana; being the oldest grandchild apparently gave me the right to choose her name. But when my first cousin came along and grew old enough to talk, my aunt judged that name to be insufficiently classy. She insisted that we call her Grandmother, so Grandmother it was from that point onward, no matter how difficult that word was for very young tongues.

One of my earliest memories of Grandmother centers around a vision of her hands working the biscuit dough, forming the individual rolls and sliding the pan into the hot oven for the midday meal (dinner, not lunch – lunch was for city folks). I still remember what the kitchen smelled like – the pungent aroma of greens cooking long and slow on the stovetop, the lingering salty scent of the home-cured side meat she had fried for breakfast that morning, the very faint odor of the kerosene that fueled the heater at the far end of the room during the winter. When I was very small, the spot in front of that heater was where the washtub went for my bath, with Grandmother adding hot water from a kettle until I judged it was the right temperature.

My grandparents were farmers, eking out a living on a small property in north Florida. Most years they did all right, some years were tough and every now and then they had a really good year. When I was young they still grew almost all their own food, as they had their whole lives. Their typical shopping list included only flour, sugar, salt, coffee and tea; in good times they might add other store-bought items as well. Everything else – vegetables, meat, corn for the livestock and for the grits and cornmeal the family ate – came from the land.

Though Grandmother made cornbread from the grain she and Granddaddy grew, her usual bread was biscuits. Like many other rural women, she bought her flour in large fabric sacks and reused the material to make clothes and quilts. I can’t use up 25 pounds of flour nearly as fast as she could – I have only a husband and daughter to feed; she fed a husband, five children and any number of relatives and friends who worked as farm hands during the busy season. But I have chosen her brand of flour, White Lily self-rising, in an effort at accuracy. Grandmother used corn oil, the store brand from her local IGA grocery, in her biscuits so I have chosen the house label from my usual supermarket.

The only ingredient I can’t replicate is the milk she used; it came from the cows on the farm. She taught me to milk a cow when I was about five years old and I always loved helping her with that chore, then bringing the milk into the house and straining it through a dishcloth into the gallon jug that went into the refrigerator for safe keeping. The only thing I didn’t care for was cow-temperature milk to drink, so I waited for the milk to chill or asked for an ice cube in my glass. Since I don’t have a milk cow handy (though I dearly wish I did) I have opted for organic milk from my grocery store.

Grandmother kept a ‘working amount’ of flour in a wide, shallow wooden bowl that she stored, covered with a cloth, in a kitchen cabinet. When it was time to make biscuits she brought the bowl out of its storage place and made a well in the middle of the flour with her knuckles. She always computed out loud how many people she had to feed for that meal and always managed to make exactly the right amount of bread, no matter how empty or full the table was.

Into that well in the middle of the flour she poured corn oil and milk, estimating the correct amount by eye. She used about twice as much milk as oil. Then she stirred up the dough with her bare hand, gathering in just enough flour to make a very soft dough. When I have attempted her biscuit method in the past, I’ve always ended up with biscuit-flavored hockey pucks. I think I was drawing too much flour into the mixture, so this time I was careful to stop mixing while the dough was still soft.

To form the biscuits, Grandmother pinched off pieces of dough and rolled them around in her palms until they were round and smooth. I still remember the practiced motions she used, oddly similar to the way Granddaddy used to roll a cigarette in a single slick movement with just one hand. Grandmother baked her biscuits in a round metal pan (a 9-inch cake pan, if I recall correctly) that she had greased with the same corn oil she added to the dough, setting the raw biscuits right next to each other so their sides would be soft and tender when they were done.

The one detail I don’t recall is the oven temperature. I remember her telling me the oven had to be ‘hot-hot-hot’ for the biscuits to rise well, and all the biscuit recipes I’ve ever used call for a 450 º F temperature, so that is my best guess. Apparently it’s a good guess, because after 14 minutes I had soft biscuits that were gently golden on top.

Grandmother always disliked butter, a legacy of being the youngest girl in her family and therefore being stuck with the responsibility of churning the butter every week until she left home to get married. As soon as she could afford it, she started buying margarine and that’s what I remember at her house, what I always had on those biscuits she baked. But I prefer butter and I even enjoy churning it, never having had that job imposed on me by someone else. So I’m serving these biscuits with butter; I think Grandmother would understand. I even had one for dessert, drizzled with honey (I’m fresh out of the kind of cane syrup they always had on the farm, made from the sugar cane they grew on the land – the closest facsimile that’s available around here in north Georgia is sorghum).

Next time, I'll make my great-grandmother's cornbread, as I explained in the previous post. I hope it goes as well as the biscuits did.

Here’s to our grandmothers, and their grandmothers, all the way back in time to the first woman. May we be worthy of them, and may we always be grateful that it is their shoulders we stand upon.