Proper Southern Biscuits

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

I don’t have a clear first memory of tasting food, but I do have a clear first memory of making it. At my dad’s first church appointment, there was a tradition of cooking elaborate homemade breakfasts every Sunday and dinners (suppers, as they were called) of a similar scale every Wednesday. These feasts required spreads of fried chicken, collard greens, lima beans cooked with bacon in the pot — and biscuits. Hundreds of buttermilk biscuits, each pressed out by hand by the three most influential women of my early childhood years.

Miss Donna, with her short dyed-blonde hair, glasses, and vibrant pink lipstick. She called me and my brother “sugar,” and she had a special affection for my then-baby brother. I have more memories of her legs than of her face, simply because I followed her around everywhere, often trailing her into the industrial sized kitchen for treats.

Miss Paula, who carried herself with a force that left me slightly in awe. Her face was softer, rounder. Her eyes were dark and sparkling. Her voice was faster than Miss Donna’s, which liked to linger on vowels. She plowed through other adults and always cleared a space for me, telling any of my would-be oppressors who would rather I not run down the hallway screaming the lyrics to every song in The Lion King to “let the girl have a little fun.”

And my mom, out of place with these aged matriarchs. She was new to the town, new to the small church community, newly married and newly uprooted, and she carried two children with her before the age of 25. Her thin face was accented by thin wire glasses (she would get plastic frames later), and her pale green eyes were nervous, wary of the unfamiliar environment. But her hands were confident as she kneaded the shapeless biscuit dough. The other two women taught her their biscuit secrets, more revered than any homily. “Don’t twist the cutter,” they told her gently. “Don’t work the dough too much. Add more milk rather than less.” Miss Donna and Miss Paula taught her how to make biscuits, and how to carve out her own space in the world.

From my mother and my two pseudo-grandmothers, I learned how to bake. Before I knew about chemistry or carbon dioxide, I thought that these women caused the bread to rise through the sheer force of their will. Before I knew about developing gluten (or not, in the case of proper Southern biscuits), I thought that their love softened the dough, making it the perfect palate for the honey and butter that gathered in liquid golden pools across the surface.

I don’t ever need the recipe for biscuits. It’s engraved in my mind and my soul with an intensity that no amount of time or distance could ever wear away. I haven’t seen Miss Paula or Miss Donna in over 12 years, but they are with me every time my hands reach into the bowl to touch the impossibly soft flour, the grittiness of the sugar, the tenderness of the rough dough.

Proper Southern Biscuits

(Recommended that you at least double the recipe in order to feed a hungry family, or multiply by 10 if you are feeding a hungry church)

2 cups of all-purpose flour (any specialized flour is for TV chefs, weaklings, or both)

1 tbsp. baking powder

2 tbsp. sugar (contrary to my beliefs at the time, this, not Miss Donna, is what sweetens the biscuits)

1 tsp. salt

¼ cup of butter (don’t even try margarine — Miss Paula is watching)

1 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine dry ingredients with a fork. If you are lazy or have a rambunctious toddler who is loose in the kitchen, feel free to skip this step and just dump everything into the bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. Add the buttermilk and combine gently. You will probably need to add more buttermilk, depending on the humidity, the temperature, and the behavior of crows on that particular day. Flour the counter and dump the ragged dough into the center of it. Flour your hands and gently flatten the dough until it is the correct thickness: anywhere from half an inch to an inch is permissible. Cut out the biscuits using a round cutter (or a pumpkin-shaped cookie cutter if you lost the round one), taking care not to twist the ring. Place the biscuits with sides touching on a greased airbake tray. You are allowed to look up what this means. Bake for 8–15 minutes. Don’t actually use a timer. Just wait until the tops become golden brown and the sides no longer look doughy. Rub half a stick of butter on top and serve warm.


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