On Bowls and Biscuits

A few weeks ago, I took my mother, wife, and granddaughter to visit my Uncle Danny. He and Aunt Natine have both been in poor health lately, and they haven’t been able to come to the last few family get-togethers. We spent a very pleasant afternoon with them, talking about family and remembering the many relatives who have gone on to their rewards. It’s odd, but even talking about the tough times is enjoyable with Danny and Natine.

With increasing age and declining health, both of them talked frequently about clearing out some of their “stuff.”

The end result was that we all left with a memento: Mom with a small, detailed shoe Danny had carved from a single piece of wood, Joyce with an equally detailed hand-carved spoon, Emily with a collectible doll of Natine’s.

I didn’t expect to take anything home with me. We were winding down the visit when Danny mentioned that he had Grandma Iva’s dough bowl. It had been passed to her from her mother, and Danny said he had no idea how old it is.

“I’d love to see it, if it’s not too much trouble to find,” I said.

“Oh, it’s right there on top of the refrigerator,” he answered, walking over and pulling it down. He dumped the fast-food catsup and soy sauce onto the kitchen table and handed me the bowl.

It looked old, but I couldn’t tell how old. It also looked pretty well-used. Although the wood was quite dried out, a rich patina coated it inside and out. (Patina, as you probably know, is an antique dealer’s term for dirt old enough to be charged for.)

I turned the bowl over and over, looking carefully at each mark on its well-aged surface. It had been made on a lathe, we could tell, but there were no indications whether it was homemade or store-bought. The wood has shrunk unevenly over the years, so the bowl is slightly wider in one direction than the other.

Danny pointed to a rough spot on the outside of the bowl, just below the rim.

“That looks like where the bark was,” he said. If so, that might indicate the bowl was made at home by one of the woodworkers in the family. Or Great-grandma might have bought a “second” to save money.

“You can have it if you want it,” Danny said.

After protesting a couple of times that the gift was too important to his family, I realized that Danny was entrusting me with the heirloom because he knew I would appreciate and care for it.

After getting it home, I sanded and cleaned the bowl, removing some of the patina in an effort to restore it to usefulness. Joyce has promised to make some biscuits when it’s ready.

Seeing the old bowl reminded me about biscuits. We seldom make them anymore, except to accompany specific dishes (like homemade vegetable soup), but biscuits were literally the daily bread eaten by most people in these parts when I was growing up.

Those who know biscuits only from the greasy, flat hockey pucks sold in fast food restaurants will have to take my word that the Southern biscuits of my youth were as good as any baguette I ever ate in Paris—or anywhere else, for that matter.

For most cooks, a wooden or pottery bowl would hold a supply of flour, into which the biscuit-maker would add baking powder or baking soda, salt, butter or lard, and some milk or buttermilk. The daily repetition of the biscuit-making usually meant that no one measured anything. There was no recipe—Grandma, or Mama, or Sister knew by instinct how much of each ingredient to mix in. The day’s biscuits were formed in the middle of the flour, with the remaining supply left in the bowl awaiting the next day.

The results varied remarkably among cooks, considering how little the ingredients varied. A French chef might ask an apprentice to make an omelet to test his cooking abilities. Around here, I don’t know any better gauge of a cook’s skill than a bite or two of a biscuit fresh from the oven.

Grandma Iva, the owner of the wooden bowl I now hold in trust, made what I always considered an elegant, precise style of biscuit. Hers were relatively small, and remained remarkably consistent in size, appearance, and taste. I can’t remember ever watching her make them, but I remember how good they were when we sat down to dinner or supper. I can’t be sure, but I think she may have made a batch for every meal. Because he was a farmer, Grandpa Charlie was often at home at lunch time (that’s why it remained “dinner”), so I’m sure she made them at midday. But I also seem to remember hot biscuits at supper as well.

As much as I loved Iva’s biscuits, I have to say that within our family, my mother’s mother, Grandma Estie Shelton, made the best biscuits. Hers were also the ones that depended most on “magic.” Not only did she never measure anything, but she also used no rolling pin or biscuit cutter. You could watch her make biscuits, day after day, and still have no idea how she did it.

Grandma Estie mixed the dough quickly with an odd pinching movement of her fingers, kneading the dough lightly, then shaping each large biscuit in the air as she moved it from the bowl to her biscuit pan, a nondescript bit of tinware blackened from years of daily use. She crowded the biscuits against each other in her biscuit pan, so that they rose into a single loaf that was over three inches high. We served ourselves by breaking off a light, fluffy, incredibly tasty and surprisingly hearty serving of bread. It was great on its own, or as a complement to a bowl of pinto beans, or to a helping of one of her specialties, green beans cooked with “spuds.” It also made the best ham or sausage biscuits you ever tasted, enhancing the flavor of the meat without losing any of its own tender robustness.

Mom says Grandma converted to self-rising flour after that became available, but the biscuits turned out the same. And while she grew up watching and trying to follow her mother’s technique, she never managed to make biscuits that were even similar.

Not that hers were bad. When I was a boy, we had them every night for supper, unless she made cornbread instead. After an optional second biscuit spread with butter and dragged through a pool of molasses or sorghum syrup drizzled onto our plates, leftover biscuits stayed in a basket on the table to be eaten with our eggs and grits for breakfast. I remember liking them just as much in the mornings, when they cooled and became a bit crisp. But Mom was always a little lacking in confidence in her biscuits. They never rose as high as Grandma Estie’s, and they never had the extra, intangible flavors that both Grandmas managed to produce in every batch. Maybe the bowl really was the secret, where the magic lived.

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