Thursday, October 14, 2010

Good Biscuits

It just makes me sick to think of myself as a foodie, those people who use their cell phone cameras to take pictures of every dish at every meal, posting them on their FaceBook pages. But I have to admit, there are two experiences that can really improve an otherwise depressing day: a top notch book of short stories and (dare I admit it) a good biscuit.

It has been a feast week around my house this week since I scored some fine collections of short stories at the Southern Book Festival in Nashville last weekend. Ron Rash's and Brad Watson's duet reading in one of the courtrooms at the state capitol was made even better by the fact that they each read a piece of a story by a favorite author before reading their own stories. Rash read from William Gay's work, and Watson read from Barry Hannah's. I brought home Rash's Burning Bright as well as Watson's Aliens in the Prime of Life. Both are deeply satisfying.

Which leads me to that other deeply satisfying food for the Southern soul: good biscuits. Yesterday in the grocery store as I was casually browsing the flour, there it was: WHITE LILY UNBLEACHED SELF-RISING FLOUR. Biscuits are in my future. I feel safe saying that I know biscuits as well as I know short stories, which is to say: on more than just a first-name basis. We're talking intimate knowledge here. I think and breathe short stories. I feel them in my blood. My life has unfolded in a series of short stories. I have friends who named their first-born Flannery, for crying out loud. Well, biscuits and I go back even farther, even deeper than that. Short stories did not appear on my horizon until Captain Kangaroo had Mr. Green Jeans read to us from a Little Golden Book. Biscuits were part of my life well before I could walk. I made biscuits as a child with my mother and both grandmothers. I had my own little biscuit pan.

Now here is the next question from the foodie snobs: "What KIND of biscuits?" they will ask. What these people are getting at is this: are your biscuits made from organic local flour milled on a small farm within easy driving distance of Alton Brown/Frank Stitt/Scott Peacock/Sister Angelica? Do you use lard, and if you do, did you personally meet the pig and shake hands with the butcher who slaughtered him and rendered the pure white sweet shortening? Did you make your own buttermilk from whole pasteurized (but NOT homogenized) milk from grass fed cows less than 50 miles from your home? Or, better still, do you have your own milk cows?

At one time or another, I have been able to answer 'yes' to all of the above. But a fine biscuit is more than just the sum of its heirloom, pedigreed parts.

In the South, in the past, the type of biscuits people ate indicated much about their backgrounds. In Virginia, the beaten biscuit with the right kind and cut of ham still carries a certain cachet. In the Deep South, the cathead, buttermilk biscuit along with sawmill gravy was standard fare of the working, hard-scrabble farmer while the more delicate baking powder biscuit cut out of rolled dough using a biscuit cutter was eaten by more refined folk.

I do not discriminate against a biscuit because of its origins.

The Hardee's in Loretto, Tennessee, makes the best country ham biscuit I have eaten in quite a while. The large biscuits are an ode to flour and buttermilk. They are baked in a hot oven and their crispy brown crusts are basted in butter while they are still hot. I suspect lard, sugar, some alien ingredient such as "cotton seed oil extract derivative" and storebought buttermilk are key ingredients. I do not care. Just thinking about them makes me want to skip class, grab my dog, and drive across the state line for them.

In the meantime, here is a HIGHLY unauthorized version of my niece's recipe for super easy but super good biscuits. Sorry, no pictures. You're just going to have to imagine it. You know, like: in your mind.


Eleanor said...

Where's the recipe? My mouth is watering, and I'm holding you responsible.

Ray Clifton said...

Glad to know that you are a biscuit-lover too.

Your post lead to biscuits for supper--a good day for both of us.