I learned how to make biscuits from my North Carolinian grandmother who learned from her mother. Her old biscuit cutter sits on top of my stove. By the time the biscuit recipe made it to me, it was an exact, precise, intimidating art form. “Only use White Lily. Stir 15 times. Grate your butter. Don’t touch the dough too much. Chill the bowl. Fold four times.”
At one point, my great-grandmother was making dozens of biscuits a day to feed her five children, farmer husband, and community. (The Meases were the local “library” for the Henson Cove in the mountains of North Carolina.) When my grandfather, an Armenian “foreigner,” first came to their family homestead, he ate 32 of my great-grandmother’s biscuits in one sitting. That was the mark of good Southern husband material. I’m sure Meemaw raised an approving eyebrow.
I figured out the recipe a few times, managing to condense the set of commandments into a passable, relatively good biscuit: fluffy, flaky, and even a few sets of those iconic layers that we saw on TV commercials. Then, something happened. In retrospect, I began to rush the process.
What Feels Right
Batch after batch, my biscuits grew flatter. Golden and flaky and tender and blossoming under pats of butter and honey—but flat. I tried to make biscuits for my grandmother one day and she immediately took over the dough, saying, “That’s not right. You have to FEEL it. You’ll know when it feels right.” Great, just what a budding Southern cook wants to hear. It’s all intuition passed down from her to her to her to her to me, who has washed the magic touch down the drain alongside clumpy, warming shreds of once-frozen butter and a half a cup of “golden flour,” White Lily.
It would surely come as no shock to you to learn that that methodology is not how we cultivate great bakers, with a perfectionism mindset that could deem a batch of perfectly lovely, flavorful—albeit flat—biscuits as a failure.
So, when I found myself at the steps of a majestic home in Marion, Alabama for a biscuit experience with Chef Scott Peacock, I’m not sure what I was expecting—but a revelation on biscuit height, most certainly. After all, that’s what my grandmother could pull off that I didn’t have “the touch” for.
Six hours later, as we pulled sweet figs from a tree outside and felt that warm Sunday sun compelling us to turn our faces to the sky, I’d come away with much more than biscuit height.
A CULMINATION OF MomentS
My great-grandmother, the wife of a poor farmer, made a functional biscuit. At one point, she and her husband grew their own wheat that was milled locally. It was the only way they could afford it. As Scott taught us: Biscuits take flour, and flour takes money. We look back at the history of Southern food and those whose hands prepared it and gloss over the nuance of “flour takes money.” It wasn’t the wealthy white Southerners baking biscuits; it was enslaved people who in turn couldn’t provide their own children with that same luxury of biscuits. Because, flour takes money. Let that sink in.
As I continue to better understand the stories behind what we eat and prepare, especially with such deep Southern roots, I’m reminded that these foods are worthy of respect. My great-grandmother’s biscuits “reflected the biscuit maker,” as Scott would say, serving a very functional need with her own wheat and lard from her own pigs. Those biscuits were honorable. She wasn’t aiming for the tallest, most extravagant biscuit topped with God-knows-what—she was feeding her family in the Henson Cove among other farmer parents who were also feeding their families. It was about sustenance. It was a culmination of moments: some biscuits darker, some lighter, some flatter, some taller. It was a found rhythm, and it was never once about perfection.
So, just as I’ve been challenged through such a transformative experience as understanding what it really means to allow the biscuit to be an expression of the biscuit maker—a biscuit maker who is always learning, changing, and far from perfect—I encourage you, in your kitchen: Remember that, as you stare down a recipe that bears the pressure of generations of Southern cooks, it’s about the moment. It’s about the connection to the food, to the history, and to the biscuit’s purpose. Let’s revere a storied recipe, but, like the biscuit maker, give it space to breathe.