The Kneading Kind
By Jay Hardwig
APRIL 20, 1998: Biscuits. I made biscuits this morning. Not at the crack of dawn and not in the family skillet, but I did make biscuits. Measured out the flour (self-rising, as a matter of course). Cut in the shortening - first with a fork, and then my hands. Added buttermilk. Worked the dough, knuckle-deep, kneading, careful not to handle it too much and take out all the rise. Rolled out the dough on a floured cutting board with a floured rolling pin to a half-inch thickness. Picked a good biscuit-cutter from among my drinking glasses, and, turning it upside down, cut the biscuits. Arranged them, sides touching, on a baking sheet. A little milk on top for color. And into the oven, 450 degrees for about 12 minutes (or until they look like good eating). I learned to make biscuits from a seventh-generation biscuit maker in the hills of east Tennessee. Nina Reining was her name, and she worked as a cook at a popular education school in New Market, where I worked one summer. It was an incredible place, a center of political research and grassroots activism; I was constantly surrounded by geniuses. Of all the things I learned there, making biscuits was the most important.
"Is there a recipe?" I asked. Nina grinned. "Well," she said, "I generally take a handful of this and a pinch of that...." But she reckoned she could find me a recipe somewhere, if I wanted to do it that way. I did. I wanted to take it with me. Couldn't trust the memory. Very well. Could she teach me? She could.
We made biscuits. They were good.
I still make those biscuits. I have for years now. And still, every time, after all those years, they are a revelation. Peel off the top, add butter, honey, jam. The taste can't be described. It is a simple taste, delicious. I shall never tire of it.
I made a batch for a friend up north once. A good batch, well-risen and nicely browned. How do you like 'em, I asked. They're good, he said. If you like the taste of flour.
I do. I do like the taste of flour.
Raised in Tennessee, but not by biscuit-makers, for years my only exposure to them was through chicken joints and pork chop shops. I learned to love them then. I have always been a man for starches, but biscuits were something else besides. Patriotism, I have read, is the memory of foods eaten in youth.
Is this important - that I was raised in Tennessee? Is this why I love biscuits?
Not everyone understands my passion. Not everyone shares my love. It can be hard to find self-rising flour in the north. In the north sometimes, you get toast. Toast is fine, but.... Does this mean anything? Are biscuits a regional thing? A cultural affectation? A symbol of the South?
They are. They are also good with gravy.
I made biscuits for my father once. Remember, he is not a biscuit-making man; he is not from biscuit-making stock. But he will eat 'em. He can put them away. I offered him some of mine. He picked one up, buttered it, and took a solemn bite. The crumbs gathering around his whiskers. He looked up at me, blinked.
By god, he seemed to say, this boy's done something right.
I got married not long ago. A nice ceremony at the Dabbs Railroad Hotel in Llano. There are many features to recommend the Dabbs, but in the end, I wonder if we didn't choose it because the owner makes good biscuits. And gravy. ("Try all three kinds," he says. "Butter biscuit, jelly biscuit, gravy biscuit. Gravy's good on the taters too," he says.) How better to start married life but with a shared biscuit? Our life, we are saying, will have its charms. In her vows, she mentions my biscuits. God I love this woman.
Perhaps I will make biscuits tomorrow morning. Get out the mixing bowl, the shortening, the flour. Turn on the gas in the oven. Start the coffee. Pour a glass of juice. Maybe I'll do just that. Maybe that's just what I'll do.
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