Down South, it's not breakfast without flaky, fluffy lard biscuits born of a cast-iron skillet. They are more than just morning fare; they're time machines that transport some of us back to years far leaner.
My old man was a Baptist preacher's kid, during the Great Depression. He grew up poor.
He had an enormous appetite, and enjoyed all kind of new and exotic foods. I like to think of him as a sort of proto-foodie. He would always clean his plate and proudly slap me on the back when I was able to inhale everything served to me and still ask for seconds. It wasn't until I was older that I understood that when you go to bed hungry as a kid, you grow up making sure you eat every single morsel presented to you. Because you never know when it's not going to be there.
Luckily, his children never suffered. So, one Saturday morning, I complained about the biscuits we were being served. While my parents were dating, my Mexican-American mother had straight up lied to my dad, boasting that she could make biscuits. Her first attempt was a failure; her biscuits were as hard as pavement. It took years of trial and error for her to perfect her clouds of lard. They remain perfect.
But my plan was foolproof: why not bust open the box of toaster waffles languishing in the freezer? Those disks of sweetened sawdust were going to waste. My little kid logic was solid. My dad ate his biscuits two ways: smothered in white gravy or Karo corn syrup. I never acquired a taste for the latter - too thick and sweet. It's what I imagine the Sugar Crisp Bear bleeds. He was between biscuit courses when he looked at me calmly and told me he understood that there were toaster waffles in the freezer. However, mom had already made fresh hot biscuits.
And, he added, biscuits saved him from starving to death.
My father saved from a gruesome fate? I was immediately transfixed. This was his story: My grandparents, my dad and his three sisters traveled throughout the South. Such was the life of a preacher man. My Granddad would minister in towns brittle from drought, little villages near massive coal mines that would swallow men whole and main streets where the only activity came from whirling dust devils. One particularly bad month saw them living in a shack with a small barn out back somewhere in Missouri.
The way my dad would describe it, the only parishioners were a pair of skeletons. Times were so tough, that my Granddad was worried about feeding his family. They had no money - just some milk and butter to live on. He went out to the barn to do what preachers do. In the barn, however, he discovered a near empty bin that was caked with flour. So he gave a prayer of thanks for this little bit of food, took it to my Grandmother and she made biscuits and white gravy with it. I imagine that's the kind of meal you remember your entire life.
The next day, they unexpectedly received money in the mail from relatives. A minor miracle.
So my dad wasn't starving enough to turn into a cannibal, but I got it. Biscuits are for good times and bad. Toaster waffles are for Tuesday mornings for when my dad is already at work, I'm late for school, and Mom doesn't have time to make a warm batch.
My Mother's Recipe for Biscuits
2 cups flour
Mix flour, baking powder, salt and lard or Crisco until the combination is "crumbly"
Add 3/4 a cup of milk
Mix into a ball. Make sure not to overwork the dough, or the biscuits will come out hard.
Pat the dough out flat. Don't roll it with a pin.
Using a regular drinking glass, cut out biscuits from dough. Keep balling the dough up, and flattening it out until there isn't enough anymore to cut.
Bake at 420 degrees for 12 minutes.
Serve with white gravy or corn syrup.
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