Friday, February 3, 2012

The Biscuit Chronicles

There's a story I've been wanting to tell for a long time now about biscuits. Mention the word and Southerners melt. I think it is the most Southern of Southern foods - a foundational ingredient to all meals. Both of my grandmothers used to make them every morning for breakfast, and of course, eat on them all day. Before the days of "Lunchables," it's what kids carried to school for lunch. My Papa fondly recalls his mama packing him a biscuit smeared with a little bacon grease or stuffed with a little piece of meat. There were always biscuits, and no one seemed to get tired of them. My family likes to laugh about my uncle, the baby of the family, getting real upset in kindergarten one day during a collaging project. The children were to cut pictures out of magazines that represented what they ate for breakfast. His teacher called Granny and explained that he was beside himself because he couldn't find a picture of "syrup n' biscuits" to glue on his page - his favorite.

Ah, biscuits! One of my first food photography efforts long before the blog.

What is so magical about the seemingly boring biscuit -- a mass of flour, shortening (or butter) and milk? Maybe it's the simplicity. Maybe it's what you put on it. Maybe it's the memories of the hands that faithfully made them day after day, year after year.

Seven years ago when I was in grad school, I took an American Folkcrafts class. For my final project, I examined the biscuit as a work of folkcraft -- a skill that was passed down from generation to generation and adapted over time.  I got my Granny, Mama and Aunt Alice together in the kitchen where they at one time all time honed their craft -- and we made biscuits. My husband took pictures and documented how we each made them. Then, of course, we had the pleasure of eating them!

Although we all ultimately had learned biscuit-making from Granny, who learned the craft from her mother-in-law, we each made them slightly differently. We agreed that my aunt's biscuits were the best. She made them big, tall and fluffy -- what some call "cathead" biscuits due to their size. Of course, some things were consistent in all of our biscuits. We all used White Lily flour, shortening and buttermilk, and at some point, we all got our hands in the dough. (You just have to!) None of used a written recipe, either. Honestly, I wouldn't know how to write a recipe for biscuits. So much of it is in the touch and texture. It comes with practice. I imagine when you make them every single day you get a pretty consistent product. My Granny and all the biscuit makers who came before her were truly masters at their craft.

Armed with flour, buttermilk and Crisco, Granny demonstrated her craft.

For as long as I can remember, Granny had the "flour drawer." She stored all her flour and her well-seasoned 50-year-old wooden biscuit bowl. That thing is a treasure!

Granny butters her biscuits.

Mama got fancy with a pastry cutter. She didn't use one of those when I was a kid!

My aunt has perfected biscuit placement - close together but not quite touching so the edges get crispy.
Patting them out like mama taught me. 
An example of each finished product. Mine are the flat and crispy looking ones.

Maybe it's taken me a while to write about this experience because so much has changed in the past seven years. When we had our biscuit making day, I was a bit queasy and carried a secret that only my mama knew about -- my now six year old son. Mama had just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and was undergoing chemo at the time. It was right before Christmas and everyone was busy and had a million other things to do, but in spite of it all, we got together and made biscuits. I taped recorded the whole process and half of it is laughter. It is truly an experience I will always treasure.

Three generations of biscuit makers.

The years that followed brought both joy and sorrow. My son came into the world, but I lost my mom just before his first birthday. Struggling with Alzheimer's disease, Granny can longer remember how to make biscuits or even turn the oven on for that matter. But, I have this memory -- and another little boy, too. Our family has grown and changed, but the biscuit remains.

To celebrate a year of my blog, I want to launch a new storytelling series called "The Biscuit Chronicles" and would love to feature your stories. Do you have a favorite biscuit making memory or story about the importance of biscuits in your family? Do you have a family photo you could share? Maybe your grandmother's biscuits were the best in the world -- or maybe she couldn't make them to save her life. Or, maybe there's a restaurant in your town that is carrying on the tradition of homemade biscuits. I want to hear about it! Please leave a comment and/or send your photos and stories to me at rachel at timeforgoodfood dot com. This could be SO much fun and I hope you will participate -- and share this post with others who you think may have a great biscuit story. All submissions must be received by February 25, 2012. Everyone who participates will be eligible to win a "biscuit soppin' kit" with my favorite Georgia honey, sorghum syrup and jellies. I can't wait!

The fine print: By submitting a story or photo, you are signifying that you own the content. I reserve the right to edit for grammar and length. If you happen to be a blogger or food artisan, I will gladly link to your site provided that it is food or family related and fits with the mission of Time for Good Food. 


  1. What a great idea! You have memories forever. I love this post. Great job!

  2. Rachel,
    I love, love, love your post. What you described is exactly why I named by blog Syrup and Biscuits. Thank you for sharing your sweet, tender memories. And thank you for honoring our magnificent Southern biscuits.

  3. Thanks so much Pam and Jackie! Jackie, I love your blog and thought of "Syrup and Biscuits" when I wrote this. Biscuits are a beautiful thing!

  4. What a beautiful story. That is definitely a memory to always treasure!

  5. This Jewish Yankee girl is feeling envious that she doesn't have a family biscuit story of her own. Beautiful story, Rachel!

  6. Thanks Erin and Jessica! And Jessica, I'm jealous I don't know to make laktes! :)

  7. I love this story. It really brings tears to my eyes. I lost my Mammaw two years ago this June. It was sudden and heartbreaking. I have similar memories of cooking with her, but no photographs. It breaks my heart to not have a picture of us cooking together. We were always too busy, too messy and too camera shy. She didn't teach me to make biscuits, but she taught me everything else. My mom taught me to make biscuits (from a recipe book). They are my dad's favorites.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and sharing, Holly! I'm sorry about the sudden loss of your grandmother. I regret not recording more recipes and memories of cooking with mine as well. I don't think I would have done it had I not been "forced" to for a grade, sadly. Sometimes it takes some outside motivation to make time for these types of things. I really NEED to get together with my aunt and do this again!

  8. I wrote a short (true) story about my adventures with biscuits. It's in the collection of short stories that is due out in September through Amazon and other book outlets. You can read it on my web page/blog: