Monday, February 26, 2007

Little Biscuits, Big Appetites

The fondest food memories of my youth are drawn from my grandmother’s house.

For 70-plus years my paternal grandmother lived in a large white house on an oak-lined, brick-paved street in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss. Her home had 13-foot ceilings, Oriental rugs, crystal chandeliers, European antiques, and a window-unit air conditioner in every room. I spent many days propped on a stool in the kitchen next to the window-unit watching her fry chicken, roast lamb, or roll biscuit dough.

Summer lunches were eaten in the breakfast room. The formal dining room was reserved for special occasion evening meals and Sunday lunches. I spent almost every Sunday lunch for the first 18 years of my life in that dining room.

The Sunday lunch menu was on a revolving schedule. One Sunday we’d eat roast beef, the next week she would serve fried chicken. Turkey and dressing made a once-a-month appearance and was not reserved for Thanksgiving alone. My favorite meal in that house— roasted leg of lamb— was served at least once a month.

The vegetables changed weekly. The starch was usually rice and gravy though mashed potatoes made an appearance on fried chicken day. Iced tea was served in sterling silver goblets and the one constant, week in-week out, were her biscuits. The woman could flat-out bake biscuits.

The biscuits were very small— about the size of a silver dollar— and light, and good. I could eat a dozen of them. Nothing sleeps as hard as a meal of a dozen biscuits, leg of lamb, and rice and gravy for a Sunday afternoon nap.

She served mint jelly on lamb day, but my brother and I always opted for grape jelly— not for the lamb, but for all for the biscuits we consumed. We called it “plain jelly” I am not sure why, unless we thought mint jelly was “fancy.”

I have tried to replicate her biscuits for years, to no avail. She never wrote down her recipe and unfortunately, I never asked for it. Two cookbooks ago my sous chef and I spent almost two weeks trying to recreate my grandmother’s biscuits but hit dead end after dead end.

In the almost 20 years since her death, I have not eaten a biscuit as good as my grandmother’s. Until last week.

Last week I was a guest speaker at the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration. Included with the admission to my speech was a luncheon following the speech at Stanton Hall’s Carriage House Restaurant. On the short drive to the restaurant, my host informed me that the restaurant’s specialties were fried chicken and biscuits. I hear this often, and every time I do, I say to myself— good, sure, but not as good as Mam-Maw’s.

While eating and visiting with my hosts, someone passed a plate of little biscuits. Even though they were small, I was polite and took only one. I placed it on my plate where I forgot about it until midway through the meal. When I finally took a bite, I was stunned. “That’s it!” I said.

“What’s it?” said one of my hosts.

My grandmother’s biscuit, this is just like hers. I haven’t tasted anything like this in 20 years.” My hosts asked the server for one more plate. The server brought two. I threw manners out the window and put three biscuits on my plate. Someone passed the butter and then the man next to me handed me a small bowl of grape preserves— plain jelly.

The rest of the meal’s conversation went something like this:

"That was a great speech today, Robert.”

(With mouth full) “Would you please pass the biscuits?”

“Robert, how’s that diet you’ve been writing about coming along?”

“Is there any butter left in that bowl? Where’s that other plate of biscuits?”

“Robert, I just love when you wrote about the diet devil and the diet angel. That was clever.”

“Y’all, I know I’m making a pig of myself, but I think I’ll have a few more biscuits.”

“Robert, would you like dessert?”

“No, but I’ll take a few more of those biscuits. Do you think we could get some more plain jelly?”
Apparently, word of my substantial biscuit consumption made its way to the restaurant’s manager, who handed me a recipe card on my way out the door and invited me for a return visit.

I haven’t prepared the Carriage House Restaurant’s biscuit recipe, yet. But if they’re anywhere close to the ones I ate last week at the in Natchez, a two-decade search is over.

Carriage House Restaurant Biscuit Recipe
Stanton Hall, Natchez, Miss.

2 cups All Purpose Flour
1 /4 tsp. Salt
4 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Sugar
5 Tbl Solid Vegetable Shortening
3/4 to 1 cup Milk

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.

Mix all dry ingredients and sift. Add shortening and cut with a pastry cutter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add milk and stir slowly until mixture forms a ball (do not over mix).

Place ball on board sprinkled with flour. Roll out to 1/4-inch thickness and cut into 1 1/2-inch circles.

Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake 15 minutes.


Anonymous said...

Robert...thanks for this recipe. Our only problem is that we don't use lard anymore!! Oh, those were the days. We had those biscuits back in the 50's while on the Pilgrimage. It was special then and it must still be a special treat. I will debate gettng a small package of Crisco or whatever. Ann Elise has had some in the past but not anymore! Probably Katie has too, but not Holly... I will always remeber you being the helper on the Main Street Methodist Bible School Bus and stopping at our house on 34th St., to pick up the kids... Love your column, when will you have your own show on the Food Channel? We need some more down home cooks on there. Love to you and yours, Trudy and Webb Nix

Anonymous said...

Sounds great! But are they REALLY only 1/2" in diameter?

Neda Richards said...

Been looking for that recipe for a long time. Thanks. Any chance you can get their tomato aspic recipe? Thanks for what you are doing in Jennifer's memory.

Anonymous said...

What would happen if they were a little bit larger in diameter than 1/2"? Just was wondering.

Gina Burgess said...

Robert, you have a lot of loyal fans in Picayune. This looks like a great recipe. What would happen if you didn't roll them out but made them drop biscuits instead?

Robert said...

The recipe has been changed so that the biscuits are cut into 1 1/2-inch diameter circles.



Anonymous said...

I've been looking everywhere for this. We made this and it did not taste as good as theirs. Do you think that they hold something back or change something in the recipe they give out, as sometimes good cooks do?

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