I was raised to believe in the efficacy of biscuits as surely as the power of positive thinking or the stealth of Jesus in returning to earth when I least expected it. Biscuits have marked both the daily and the occasional events of my life. They've eased me into my leave takings and trumpeted my homecomings. They've kept me on speaking terms with my family, anger melting like butter in the face of a hot biscuit.

Folks not from around here don't much understand a Southerner's affection for biscuits, but then I don't much understand the fuss about bagels or muffins. I thought I understood about croissants but I'm not so sure anymore. I'm reminded of the time my father ate his first and only croissant. He said he reckoned it was all right, if that's what you wanted to eat, but when would the biscuits be done?

My love of biscuit eating in no way corresponds with my ability to make them. I don’t make good biscuits. A good biscuit is light as a Georgia "r" and as flaky as the paint on the west side of my house. A good biscuit sops gravy without crumbling and holds molasses like a teaspoon. My biscuits are not like that. Still, I am a biscuit snob. I would rather do without as eat inferior biscuits, which includes most of what I make, most of what is found in restaurants, and all canned, mixed or frozen, at least when I know that's what they are.

I have access to mighty good biscuits so why should I settle for less.

It used to concern my mother that I can't make good biscuits. "No man wants to marry a woman who can’t make a decent biscuit," she said.

We had biscuit making lessons: Sift your flour…How much? Oh, about a sifterfull…now cut in your shortening…How much? Until it feels right…

When I set up housekeeping 24 years ago, my mother presented me with a pastry blender wrapped in paper towels. She allowed as I wasn't quick enough to make biscuits with my hands and rather than worry my biscuit dough to leather, I could use the pastry blender. She tried to sound upbeat and encouraging, using a voice people use when speaking to the desperately ill. Years passed and I discovered that most of the world got along without biscuits, that, in fact, one could subsist quite well without hot bread on the table most meals. I even took up with a man who never even considered my inability to make biscuits when he didn't marry me.

Not long ago, I was sitting around the dinner table with my family--my mother, my brothers, their wives, my nieces and nephews. We were having our after-dinner biscuits and jelly and it came to me that except for my mother, nobody at that table made biscuits, not scratch biscuits at any rate. My great nieces and nephews might never witness their grandmothers or aunts slapping the sides of a sifter like a tambourine. They might never feel the excitement of Mama running into the dining room holding a pan of biscuits not a minute removed from the oven, burning her fingers so that everyone's first biscuit might be piping hot. It made me sad.

I know that if I had to choose between living the life I have and baking hot biscuits every night for some Joe and our children, I'd choose what I have but I can't help feeling as if something valuable is being lost. It's like going back to the woods where you played as a child and finding they've built a school there. Schools are fine, just not in your woods.

I started waxing poetic about biscuit dough being the tie that binds. Rich, poor, black, white, schooled, unschooled, churched, irreligious - - biscuits seem to be the one thing, other than humidity, that Southerners have in common. Next to jazz, they may be the South's great contribution to civilization. Looking around, I can tell that we all still eat biscuits, but how many of us actually make biscuits? Is everybody like me, on the biscuit dole, letting our mothers, grandmothers, and The Cracker Barrel furnish us with biscuits while we contribute nothing to perpetuate the tradition? Is biscuit eating a tradition that needs to be perpetuated? Biscuits are fattening. A one-ounce biscuit has 103 calories and 4.7 grams of fat. In a region where 20% of the people are overweight, shouldn't we all be eating melba toast?

Biscuits have been around for a long time. The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest usage as 1330. From the 16th to the 18th century, the regular form of the word was bisket, and The OED goes on to say, "the current biscuit is a senseless adoption of the modern French spelling without the French pronunciation." So there.

Best I can tell, Southerners have been eating biscuits since day one. According to John Egerton, in the late 18th, early 19th centuries, people leavened their biscuits by beating the fire out of them, hence the name "beaten biscuits." It took hours and considerable muscle to beat enough air into the flour, lard and milk to make the dough rise in the oven. Once slavery was abolished, the practice died.

By then, baking powder and baking soda had been invented which revolutionized both the making and taste of biscuits. They became light and fluffy rather than flat and hard. For those harboring a taste for the old beaten biscuit, a dough-kneading machine was invented but by and large, beaten biscuits are a thing of the past.

The next major event in biscuit history was the introduction of self-rising flour. Martha White, one of the two major flour companies in the South started making flour with the baking powder and soda already in it just after World War II. It was, in effect, the first biscuit mix. Speaking of flour, good biscuits must, I repeat, must, be made from Southern milled wheat. I remember this from my biscuit making lessons. My mother said never use anything but Martha White flour when making biscuits. I didn't take this admonition too seriously because I grew up in Nashville, which was home to Martha White and I figured she was just partial to the hometown team.

There is a reason though and I learned it from reading John Egerton's books on Southern cooking. The biscuits we remember so fondly were all but certainly made from wheat grown and milled in the South. Southern wheat is a soft winter wheat, producing a soft flour just dandy for quick breads. Midwestern wheat, by contrast, while also a winter wheat, is harder, due to the climate. It produces dense, heavy breads, the last thing you want in a biscuit. I discovered that The Library of Congress has catalogued 37 titles under the subject "biscuits" as compared to 20 under "bagels." The periodical database, Infotrac, has indexed 335 articles on biscuits since 1980. So a bit of paper has been spent on the subject. Once I caught up on biscuit history, I started looking for statistics on biscuit consumption. I haven't found any yet but I haven't looked real hard. I'm more into anecdotal evidence which is what separates the scientists from the English majors.

I decided to take a survey. It is in no way scientific - - in fact, the respondents are mostly my pals. I wanted to find out if any of them make biscuits and if they do, why they've never served me some when I come over to eat. I know they make risotto, and couscous, and scones, and any number of dishes they've read about in the fancy cooking magazines they all seem to read. Do any of them make biscuits though? They seemed rather surprised by my question, as if I'd asked, do you ever drink water? Not only do a number of my pals make biscuits, they make them fairly often and from scratch. Not every night but at least once a week or several times a month.

Those who don't make biscuits still eat them, and some make no secret of their willingness to use canned or frozen rather than do without. One gal said if she had to have good biscuits she got her mother or sister to make them, otherwise she used frozen which were better than any she made herself. We got into long raps about method. There are those who cut the flour and shortening with a fork and those who use their hands (nobody uses a pastry blender although most of the recipes tell you to). There are the milk dribblers and there are those who make a flour well and pour the milk down it then pull the flour in from the sides. They have flour opinions; being East Tennesseans, they mostly swear by White Lily made in Knoxville but they will allow Martha White as second choice. No other flour will do and they know that without knowing a blessed thing about winter wheat. Then we got into the eating of biscuits - - do you crumble your biscuit into the gravy or pour the gravy on top? Do you stir your butter and molasses together or load them separately onto the biscuit? There's a lot to know about a person when you know these things. I feel better about the future of the biscuit for having discussed it. Are my friends representative of the South as a whole? I like to think so, but I also know, in most respects, they are kindly odd.

My last question in the biscuit survey was: Did you get to butter your biscuit before or after the blessing? Methodists tend to butter before, Baptists and Church of Christ make you wait. My friend, Tom, who makes biscuits twice a week, is from a family that didn't bless each and every meal, which I am sure explains his avidity.

I am a preacher's granddaughter, and my mother and aunts knew a thing or two about long-winded praying. They slipped the biscuits in the oven as the last head bowed. They folded their hands piously, knowing the prayer could run on 8-12 minutes and the biscuits still come out hot and fresh. Amen.


Nelda Hill lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. Besides writing she occasionally plays a mean mountain dulcimer in a bluegrass band.

©Copyright 2005 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.