My grandmother raised 10 children on a tobacco farm. Every day, she made a pan of biscuits at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
One of the hallmarks of Southern food is “dump” cooking, where ingredients aren’t measured. Instead, the practiced cook combines ingredients freehand, using feel, taste and – most importantly – experience to determine the correct quantities.
Grandma never uses a rolling pin or a cookie cutter to make biscuits. Instead, she keeps a big bowl of flour in her pantry, and when it’s time to make the bread, she makes a crater in the center of the flour. Then she takes a lump of shortening and cuts the shortening into the flour with her fingers.
Next, she pours buttermilk over the shortening-flour mixture, working more flour into the dough as she mixes. She continues kneading flour into the dough until it’s soft and pliable. Then she pinches off palm-sized bits of dough and pats them into discs, one at a time, until she has a panful of uniform biscuits, ready for the oven.
In the old days, Grandma baked with a wood stove. That’s probably why she now prefers to bake biscuits in a very hot oven and let them get brown on top, crispy on the bottom. She used lard instead of shortening.
But this bread isn’t greasy like commercial biscuits are, and the biscuits aren’t huge, either. They’re best with a pat of butter and a spoonful of brown sugar.
Learning to make food in that way was a vital part of growing up. When my mom taught me, she kept her flour in a lime-green plastic bowl, straight out of a 1970s Tupperware party. I watched countless times as one hand worked under the dough, bringing flour from the bottom, while the other rotated the bowl. Around and around, until the consistency was perfect.
I was probably a teenager when I learned, and I’m still perfecting it. Mom, on the other hand, was much younger when Grandma taught her.
In her first batch of biscuits, Mom worked way too much flour into the dough, and the biscuits were rock-hard. My grandfather demonstrated their inedibility by holding one above his head and letting it drop with a sharp crack onto the table. Mom cried.
But later – probably the same day – she tried again. By the time she was 8 years old, she was preparing the family’s lunch by herself on the woodstove, while Grandma went to the field.
Mom was more patient with me, but the truth is, my biscuits aren’t as good as hers. Mom’s aren’t as good as Grandma’s. I guess there’s no substitute for years of daily practice. And a man who’s picky about his bread.
I still like to watch Grandma in the kitchen. Sometimes I wonder how she was able to raise 10 children in the days before modern conveniences like electric stoves and refrigerated biscuits. It couldn’t have been easy.
It was probably a lot like making her biscuits: There’s no cookie-cutter way to do it. You just try to be consistent, and remember that a little sugar makes a good thing even better.