Saturday, December 27, 2014

Dad's Biscuit Story

When I was 11 or 12, my dad came into the room where my younger brother, Jim, and I were watching television, and told us to join him in the kitchen. This was odd, but we did as requested and he told us this story.

"In May of 1936, Mom, Tom and I moved in together. We did okay financially because Tom was out of high school and working. With both of them working, I wound up doing most of the housework.

('Mom' refers to my grandmother, Myrtle Cowdery. 'Tom' refers to my uncle, dad's brother.)

"One day Mom said that she wanted to talk. I was concerned that she was going to go into the birds and bees bit because she seemed serious and somewhat reluctant to begin.

"She told me a story that when her older sister, Gen, was born her father came to the realization that there was no one to bake his biscuits for breakfast. For him to not have hot, fresh biscuits for breakfast was unthinkable. After Grandma got on her feet again he had her teach him how to bake biscuits, which he then did whenever she was not able and even at other times when it was convenient.

"As their children were growing up Grandma, naturally, taught the girls the necessary skills, including biscuit baking. Grandpa saw to it that his sons could bake biscuits and made all of his children promise him that if they had any sons, they would make sure that the sons learned the art. Mom remembered her promise and said that it was time that I learned so she taught me.

"I not only enjoyed hot, fresh biscuits but I even enjoyed making them and it wound up that from then on I was the official biscuit baker in the household. I might add that this was well before Bisquick and long, long before biscuit dough in a tube."

At which point, dad taught Jim and me how to make biscuits, from scratch, not using Bisquick or dough in a tube as was already the norm in our household. He then imposed the promise on us.

The recipe is nothing special. Mix flour with baking powder and salt. Cut lard into the dry ingredients using knives held between your fingers until the mixture has a pebble consistency. Add milk, stir into a dough. Roll onto a floured surface to about 1/3 inch thickness. Cut out with a drinking glass. Bake at 375° until golden brown.

Something like that.

The promise did not include making scratch biscuits with any frequency. We usually had the tube stuff. Occasionally we made them using Bisquick. I made them from scratch a few times after that. If I try it again, I assume it's okay to use a pastry cutter instead of knives.

Unfortunately, Jim died without issue and I likely will as well, so the biscuit-making heritage of the Tucker-Cowdery family ends with me.

Just as well. I don't even know where to get lard.


colbyj said...

Most Chicago area grocers have lard. But, unsalted butter is a necessary ingredient, not lard, in our house. Not daily but at least weekly bisquits our house.

Anonymous said...

I'm a cream biscuit convert.

While I do love lard and butter(milk) biscuits the convenience and forgiveness of these are hard to beat.

Preheat over to 450F

2 C flour (260g)
1 1/2 C cream
1 t salt
2 t baking powder
2 T sugar

Mix everything up, knead dough briefly, and cut into biscuits.

The weird thing is that kneading it a little more than you would with traditional biscuits doesn't seem to make them any chewier.

My 7yo and 9yo can almost make these by themselves.

These also don't make half bad cinnamon rolls.

Old Dusty said...

Chuck, perhaps you are resigned to the end of the tradition, but your post left me sad. I would urge you to pick children of a good friend, neighbor or coattail relative to pass this skill on. This is not some cancer cure, but yet It is a ritual that helps bind a family. It would be a shame for it to be lost.

Kevin R said...

There's lard in the grocery store around here too (northern Virginia). Never used it for biscuits but I've used it for pie crust.

Harry said...

So, we now have anon's cream/buttermilk biscuit recipe. How about sharing yours with us? My wife makes hers with sourdough, but I'd kind of like to try out a "good" recipe without asking her. TIA.

Chuck Cowdery said...

It wasn't about a recipe so much as it was about the technique of cutting the lard into the dry ingredients. And it was a very long time ago.

Anonymous said...

We refer to them "bumpy" biscuits. I want bumpy biscuits, I'll on occasion hear.

h4rr4r said...

Please do share that recipe and technique. Lard is not hard to come by and I have even rendered it myself.

Christopher said...

Chuck, You can't leave us hanging like this! I live in upstate New York, and we have lard in the supermarkets here. It's in the odd-ball meat section where I also buy my salt pork.

Please give us your recipe. We need to pass these things on, even if it's not to our own kids...

Anonymous said...

Chuck, due to a difficult upbringing, I go by the saying "Friends are the family you choose."

I hope you'll share your recipe with trusted friends. And I'm sure there are a lot of friendly people reading your blog, too.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I fear I've created a monster. I'm not holding out on you. There is little else to tell. It's flour and baking powder, normal ratio. Same with the lard. Roll the lard into pea-size balls, add to the flour, then use butter knives held between your fingers like Wolverine's claws to cut the lard into the flour until the consistency is uniform. Add enough milk to form a dough. Roll onto a floured board and cut with a water glass. Bake until brown. See, nothing special, but you insisted.

P.S., the story isn't really about the biscuits.

Alex said...

Something else to keep in mind for the people looking for lard: the lard you're likely referring to in the grocery store (e.g., "Snowcap") isn't necessarily what was available in the 50s and 60s. The modern stuff is hydrogenated, which not only makes it less healthy but also changes the consistency--you might as well use Crisco since the lard has lost its qualities that make lard different. I would recommend looking for real lard, or rendering your own, like h4rr4r has done.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the story Chuck. It may not be about the recipe for you but I'll say thanks again for sharing it. My late Grandmother used to make potato candy during the holidays. She showed me how to make it when I was about ten. Given it was not something made often and the nature of boys the how was forgotten for about the 30 years she has been gone. Thanks to the wonder of the internet I found the recipe some other kind soul posted. What little is left of my family was able to enjoy it and the memory of my Grandmother again.

My Annoying Opinions said...

Oh, I thought this was a spoof of NDP tall tales about family recipes, moonshiners and "heritage".

Jason Q. said...

Great story. (I might suggest a pastry blender or even a few pulses in a food processor vs. the knives, but whatever works best for you.)

PS: Mortality is a bitch.

theBitterFig said...

There was a great biscuit story I heard in an interview with then former Maine governor Angus King. Probably apocryphal, but I still appreciate it. He wasn't from the state, but his son was just born here. So Angus ran out into the street saying, "My son's a Mainer, my son's a Mainer!" But some old duffer was there and replied, "Just cause a cat has kittens in the oven doesn't mak'em biscuits."