When Mckenzie found out I was a hobbyist biscuit-baker and enthusiast of southern cuisine, she insisted I shine a light on that part of my life through the Brooklyn Grooming blog. This post isn't a survey on grooming practices or a treatise on the importance of facial hair in our lives. But it's a bit of who I am, how I was reared---groomed, if you will---and where I came from before trekking to the Big Apple to find my identity...
"The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight." --M.F.K. Fisher
In the town where I grew up, Lincolnton, NC, everyone knows about biscuits. They are common as a slice of pizza in New York, but perhaps more important to the culinary landscape because they can accompany nearly anything, and because they are indigenous to the region. They are a staple of the southern diet and have been for generations.
My grandmother kept a pan of room-temperature biscuits on the stovetop should any of her 9 children or dozens of grandchildren stop in for a visit.
Fifty years ago it was not uncommon for the lady of the house to whip up a batch three times a day.
My great uncle Vernon would put aside two biscuits after supper to crumble into his coffee the following morning for a breakfast treat known as "soakies."
They are a vessel for consuming jams and preserves; bacon, eggs and cheese; fat-back gravy; liver mush...
Forget your waffles: Fried chicken ain't nothing without a biscuit.
And don't even get me started on the sacred art of sopping.
The Southern Experience is based heavily on food and the matriarchal channels through which customs, recipes and tools are passed down. When I look at my great-grandmother's cast-iron skillet (which my mom gave me years ago), I can only imagine the meals created therein by a woman I never knew, but who through it nourished her children, their children and God only knows who else.
So since it's Christmas, a time for reflecting, family tradition, celebration of past and future, and for remembering the importance of the ties of kinship, I'd like to share with you My Mother's Buttermilk Biscuits:
Shortening (Crisco is what Mom uses, for this batch I used actual lard)
This is not a traditional recipe, in that I don't have measurements and amounts, I just eyeball it. You'll get the hang of it after a few tries. Or who knows? Maybe you're a natural.
Pre-heat your oven to 425F. In a large mixing bowl, scoop in around 2 cups of flour. You'll notice that the self-rising flour has a cool, luxurious texture that is silky smooth and powdery.
Next, grab a handful of lard and begin to work it into the flour. As you break the lard into the flour you'll notice the flour taking on a new crumbly texture.
At that point you'll pour in some buttermilk, just enough to make the newly formed dough wet throughout and sticky--not soupy. You may stir it in with a spoon, but I recommend working it with your hands: it's primal. (And also cold as hell, so let the milk sit out for a while before you use it!)
This part is tricky. Coat your hands, the dough and your clean countertop with a light dusting of flour to prevent sticking. Take the dough out of the bowl, plop it onto the surface and knead it just until it's smooth. Keep re-flouring your hands as you lift from the bottom and individually flip up all sides of the dough, folding it into itself until you have this...
Now you can take a floured rolling pin (when I'm back in NYC, I use a floured bottle of vermouth) or do like Mom does and simply spread it flat with your fingers until the ball of dough is now a flattened sheet about an inch & a half thick.
Now cut the biscuits with a floured biscuit cutter or carefully with an upturned coffee mug. Toss the biscuits gently from one hand to the other to remove excess flour and then place on a greased (with butter or your shortening of choice) cookie sheet and slip the biscuits into the oven until they have risen and become golden brown, about 12-15 minutes. Mom starts the biscuits out on the bottom shelf, and then for the last few minutes moves them to the top.
When they come out of the oven, immediately flip them over or remove them from the cookie sheet to prevent sweating on the bottom side and lightly brush butter onto the tops of them. Serve immediately, reserving one or two to nibble on as you get the rest of your meal together.
In every society and civilization, bread is the daily representation of nourishment, sustenance and prosperity. Its presence in our lives runs deep into antiquity from the stone-ground wheat of early farmers to its linguistic ramifications today: Best thing since sliced bread? Bread-winner? What side is your bread buttered on? It's even slang for money.
It matters. So this holiday season, Break Bread with your loved ones.
And enjoy these buttermilk biscuits not just because they're de-damn-licious, but because they are my gift to you.