I took my grandmother’s 1941 Westinghouse cookbook from its hallowed place on the top shelf of the china cabinet (also my grandmother’s) and carefully turned to page 104 where I found the recipe for baking powder biscuits. This is the recipe that my grandmother used, the one that my mother used, and the one that I use today and will pass along to my daughter.
Good Southern biscuits are not the sugary, greasy things that you find in Red Lobster. No, Southern biscuits are almost a bit dry, so that the butter or jelly or sausage gravy melts into them.
My daughter loves to count things and to mix things. So when I sifted the flour and added the four teaspoons of baking powder, she helped me count the teaspoons. “One…two…three…four…” She helped me count the tablespoons of transfat-free shortening as well. Traditional biscuits use lard, but in 1941 Crisco was in vogue, so that is what I use today.
After I added the shortening, I showed her how I cut it into the flour and baking powder, first with two butter knives then later with a pastry blender. The pastry blender is my addition to the biscuit-making ritual. Mom never used one, but I learned about pastry blenders in home economics class in the eighth grade and have found them quite useful.
Eventually my daughter got bored with the pastry blending and wandered off to some other adventure, leaving me to think about my mom as I made biscuits for the Father’s Day breakfast at our house. I pulled out my rolling pin after I had kneaded the dough, one my mom had given me, and I couldn’t help but smile.
My mom had her mom’s rolling pin, one of the few things that she kept for herself after Grandma died. Mom felt that she honored Grandma more by using the rolling pin than by putting it up as some sort of keepsake never to be touched. So when the rolling pin began to get a little nicked from its many years of use, she asked my dad to sand it smooth for her.
Dad, knowing how much the rolling pin meant to my mom, carefully sanded the surface of the rolling pin until it was perfectly smooth, and then, to protect the rolling pin from further insult and injury, he varnished it.
Mother was livid. “You did WHAT to my rolling pin? I can’t bake with a rolling pin that has varnish on it.”
And she called me, and my sister, and I even think she called my brother to express her frustration at the varnished rolling pin. She knew that Dad had varnished it with the best of intentions and with her in mind, which made it even more frustrating for her, because she couldn’t really get mad.
I offered to buy her a ceramic rolling pin for Christmas that year. Mom politely declined my offer. Eventually she calmed down. Several times when I was home for Christmas or Thanksgiving, if a rolling pin came out for a pie crust or pastry, we would laugh together in the kitchen about Mom’s varnished rolling pin. And she would always lovingly add to the story that Dad varnished the rolling pin because he loved her, repeating her favorite mantra—one I had heard so often growing up: “People are more important than things, always.”
As I cut the six, circle-shaped biscuits from the dough and placed them on the baking sheet, I thought about the tradition that I was handing down to my daughter. Yes, it’s great that she learns the recipes of our family “comfort food.” But, it’s more important that she learn about love and laughter and thankfulness for people that love her. So perhaps, instead of talking about cutting the flour into the dough, next time, I’ll tell her a story about a varnished rolling pin.
© 2009 Michele Arduengo. All Rights Reserved.