Biscuit-making common ritual while growing up

Published 9:49 am Friday, October 12, 2012

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

My mother has cleared an area on the oil-cloth covered table in our kitchen and dumped a mound of flour into the clearing.

She pushes out the mound to form a well in the middle of the pile and plops a glob of lard, along with some baking powder and salt.

She starts mixing in a little milk. She works the mixture with fingers long accustomed to a familiar kitchen ritual. She adds more milk until it’s just enough (whatever that is), sprinkles flour on the oil-cloth top and kneads the dough until it becomes a smooth skinned, springy blob, lightly floured on the outside.

She reaches for a pan and begins to squeeze out chunks of dough between thumb and forefinger of her left hand; the small bit of dough is further rounded by rubbing it between her palms. She places the dough ball into the waiting pan and gives it a slight push with the backs of her fingers to flatten its top.

Succeeding biscuits are placed side by side with the first until the pan is full. Most of the time, there is no leftover dough; each biscuit is of uniform size. Sometimes, in deference to my begging, she makes a couple of “baby biscuits.”

Years of experience has taught her exact amounts without measuring or even thinking about it. It’s a reflexive action before meals on the farm. The pan is placed into a “hot” oven; it has no thermometer. Biscuits are always last to be cooked and are served hot.

Leftover biscuits become the sandwiches of the farm. They are filled with sausage, ham, beef and other meats along with mayonnaise or mustard. They are filled with butter and any of several jams and jellies.

They are split, topped with cheese and toasted; they are sometimes filled with cheese before cooking, becoming cheese biscuits. They are used to sop gravy and other food juices; when allowed to dry for a day or so, they are crumbled and used for making tomato pudding, a somewhat spicy, sweet dish. I’m partial to tomato pudding and black-eyed peas mixed together.

Three meals a day for a large family require a lot of flour; we buy it by the 50-pound sack. Lard comes from stands stored in a back room; baking powder and salt are purchased locally.

Cornbread, fried or baked, is a common substitute with some meals, but biscuits are the mainstay.

Milk comes from our cows and is kept in large bowls in our Frigidare (refrigerator). Cream rises to the top in the bowls and is collected in another container to be churned for butter.

One of my jobs is to turn the butter churn. The churn is a mechanical device with a handle and a set of gears attached to a spindle. The spindle has a wooden paddle at the end that fits inside the glass jar bottom.

The metal top has threads that attach to the glass bottom. When the lever is turned, the paddles spin and combine the butterfat in the heavy cream.

It’s fascinating to see and feel the change in texture as butterfat is separated from the lighter liquid and combined within the churn. When finished, the butter is pressed into molds and packaged separately for cold storage.

We make butter fairly often, in small quantities. The remaining buttermilk is used for biscuits or other bread recipes. Generally, we do not drink milk by the glass; the separate parts have wider uses.

Stored milk is sometimes allowed to sour and become clabber – much favored in biscuit making. Clabber adds a special taste to all breads, cakes and pastries.

One of my personal favorites is dried apple “Jacks” (turnovers). Dried apples are mixed with sugar, butter and flavorings, cooked into a paste, then used as filling for pastry crusts made from the same basic biscuit recipe.

The “Jacks” are then fried on each side in a little lard in an iron skillet. It’s usually a summer treat. Biscuit dough, rolled out and sectioned with a knife, becomes chicken potpie

I stand at my kitchen counter, measuring a small amount of ready-made, commercially prepared biscuit mix into a bowl. I add the proper amount of milk, stir until mixed and use the “drop” method for coating each biscuit with flour.

I place the finished biscuit into a prepared pan and give it a light touch, with the backs of my fingers, to flatten its top. Succeeding biscuits are placed touching its neighbor.

I feel my mothers light touch, and I smile as I place the pan into the oven. I am home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at