I did not grow up in a biscuit family.
My mother is a wonderful mother but a generally mediocre cook. She can make tasty cornbread, but during my childhood, homemade biscuits were of the Pillsbury popping-can variety.
Her mother, however, was a serious cook. At 93, she rarely gets behind the stove anymore, but my grandmother Virginia—Gee Gee to those who know her best—is the type of person who reads cookbooks like novels. (This perhaps explains why my mother is loathe to spend her free time in the kitchen.)
When Gee Gee moved out of her Yazoo City, Miss., house last year, I became the custodian of many of her old cookbooks, along with the recipe tins of both her mother, Mama Pat, and her mother-in-law Mamie. The boxes are filled with note card after note card of different recipes for the same thing: white cakes, chocolate icings, nut breads, fig preserves. But between the two tins there is just one—one—biscuit recipe.
It is, ostensibly, my great-grandmother Mama Pat's recipe. It is handwritten in blue ink and a messy script on a torn scrap of cotton paper, spotted and yellowed with age. A few words are barely visible, victims of a liquid spilled on it long ago. It reads:
1 qt unsifted flour
1 t salt
1 thimblefull [sic] soda
1 cup Crisco
3/4 cup thin buttermilk
There are no instructions, no temperature at which to bake the biscuits, nothing.
I call my grandmother. She says:
"Biscuits? I've never made biscuits in my life!"
I admit, I am taken aback. I thought everyone who cooked as much as Gee Gee has would have at least made biscuits once or twice. I reply, "No, this is your mother's recipe for beaten biscuits—it's in Mama Pat's recipe box."
"My mother never made beaten biscuits," my grandmother replies.
"Well then why is there a handwritten recipe for them?" I ask.
"I have no idea. Now Mrs. Campbell across the street—she made beaten biscuits. They had a machine for it," my grandmother says.
"So were those the first kind of biscuits you ever ate?"
"They must have been. I remember beaten biscuits as a girl—they were good. Crunchy, like crackers. But then you never saw them much after that."
My grandmother was born in 1918 in the Mississippi Delta, a place that knows how to hold on to things as long as possible. Even then, even there, beaten biscuits were already on their way out.
Beaten biscuits are the great-grandmother to all Southern biscuits. Generally a mixture of flour, lard, salt, and water, the dough is actually beaten. Not beaten with a mixer but beaten, as if on a brat with a baseball bat. The biscuits are hard, dense, chewy, and flat—at least, that's what I'm told. I'm pretty sure I've never had one.
My theory of biscuits is this: There exists the ideal, primal biscuit, the one to which all others must be compared—the ur-biscuit, if you will. We all have one, I suspect, even those of us who are not as biscuit-obsessed as the others. Maybe it's not the first biscuit you ever ate, but it is that biscuit you can taste in the back of your mind when you hear the word "biscuit"; it is your mother's biscuit, maybe, or your grandmother's.
The ur-biscuit is not quite the Proustian Madeline of biscuits; it does not necessarily carry the emotional weight of your childhood or loves lost in its remembered crumbs. It simply sets the standard in your mind for what the perfect biscuit should be.
In my mind, the standard is this: A biscuit should be equally dense and light. It should be flaky but not too flaky, buttery but not leaden with grease. The middle should never be doughy, and the bottom should never be crunchy. If you pause with a piece on the tip of your tongue, you should be able to just taste the leavening. And a biscuit should never, ever, ever, ever, ever be sweet.
In short, there is no better biscuit in my mind than the one I grew up eating each time we went on vacation, the one that was equally delicious with ham or just cheese or nothing more than jelly.
My ur-biscuit is a Bojangles biscuit.
I've had your Popeye's and your Hardee's and your KFC and your Mrs. Winner's biscuits. I've had your Cracker Barrel and your diner and your gas-station-in-a-small-town-in-Georgia biscuits. I've had your Flying Biscuit and your Big Bad Breakfast and your other-award-winning brunch biscuits. Some were delectable and some were god-awful. None was Bojangles.
None was beaten, either.
Despite being the ancestor of all that is fine and good in today's modern Southern biscuit, the beaten biscuit gets little love. Given the process involved, they would seem to be the ultimate slow food, poised for a comeback like canning one's own fruit and rendering one's own lard.
But a comeback seems unlikely to happen. It isn't just the work, and it isn't just the (supposedly) acquired taste. It's the politics.
"Smacked, hit, bludgeoned"
Here is part of a 1776 recipe for beaten biscuits:
One should place the dough "on a smooth flat surface of a tree stump and beat it with an iron pestle or side of a hatchet until the dough raises little blisters of air and is smooth and satiny."1
Here is part of an 1857 recipe:
"Beat 500 times for company, 300 times for family."*
Here is part of a 1990 recipe:
"You cannot be too vigorous or too physical. Keep at it for 15 minutes, no less. … If you feel a little weak today, make up for it by punishing the dough a few more minutes. There are no shortcuts and no appliances to help you here."**
Here is part of a 2010 recipe:
"[T]hese biscuits must be … hammered, smacked, hit, bludgeoned."***
Is it any wonder beaten biscuits were "an indispensable article of food on the daintiest of Southern tables," according to a 1914 article in the Atlanta Journal? Or that in 1980 famed New York Times food writer and Mississippian Craig Claiborne recalled his mother requiring the biscuits to be pricked only with the tines of a silver fork?
Beaten biscuits were hard work, and having them on your table meant you cared enough to work that hard. Of course, in the South, someone other than the lady of the house inevitably did that hard work. Claiborne writes, "I say [my mother] ‘had them made' because she was fortunate enough to have help in the house, and the help took turns beating the dough."
Beaten biscuits were a staple of aristocratic Southern sideboards because only aristocratic Southern families could afford the servants (and in earlier days, the slaves). Flour wasn't cheap either. This changed by the end of the 19th century, however, as flour became cheaper, and baking soda and baking power became widely commercially available.
Enter the fluffy, delicious buttermilk biscuit. An 1885 Virginia cookbook states, "Nowadays beaten biscuits are a rarity, found here and there, but soda and modern institutions have caused them to be sadly out of vogue."****
But old habits and snobbery die hard, which is why some 15 years after that cookbook was published, there was a push to bring beaten biscuits to the great unwashed masses of Appalachia. As Elizabeth Engelhardt recounts in her 2001 essay, "Beating the Biscuits in Appalachia: Race, Class, and Gender Politics of Women Baking Bread," a number of social progressives started schools around the turn of the century in Appalachia; key in their instruction were the domestic arts of cooking and homemaking.
Engelhardt narrows in on the journals of two the founders of the Hindman Settlement School in eastern Kentucky (somewhat close to Hazard). She writes, "Evidence from their letters, diaries, and fiction suggest that the teachers began the enthusiastic lessons by targeting the staple food of mountain residents, corn bread. They sought to replace it with what they considered a more healthful, appropriate, and civilized alternative, the wheat-based biscuit."
Specifically, it was the beaten biscuit, according to Engelhardt, that the teachers "crowned the height of domestic achievement. … So important was the beaten biscuit to their efforts that contemporaries looking to criticize the Hindman women … derided the entire project as the ‘beaten biscuit crusade.'"
Cleanliness was next to godliness, followed closely by the beaten biscuit. But like temperance, another passion of the same social progressive movement, the spinning modern world doomed the beaten biscuit crusade to failure.
I decide I need to make beaten biscuits.
I follow Bill Neal's recipe from his cookbook Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie—that's the one that instructs, "You cannot be too vigorous or too physical." (Since my "family recipe" doesn't seem to belong to my family and also includes baking soda, I feel like I should stick with something more authentic.)
I slowly sift four cups of White Lily flour with a teaspoon of salt, and then I add three tablespoons lard—real actual lard, despite my non-meat-eating ways. (It is not lard I have rendered myself.) I crumble the lard into the flour as if I were making a buttery pie crust, and then I add one cup of chilled water, a bit at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon until the dough forms a ball.
I dump the dough onto my countertop, lightly floured, and I grab my wooden rolling pin.
Whack! There's one. Whack! There's another.
Whack! I quickly lose count of how many times I've beaten the dough, and I'm thankful Neal's recipe is timed instead of counted. Whack! I'm feeling good about this. Whack! This is great stress relief. Whack! I look at the clock. Whack!
Three minutes have gone by.
Three minutes. Out of 15.
By the time I'm finished beating the dough a good 20 minutes later—I have to stop and catch my breath a couple of times—I am drenched in sweat and can barely hold the rolling pin, as the muscles in my forearms are close to numb. I somehow have bruised a knuckle too.
I shape the dough into little balls and flatten it like cookies (Neal's recipe bypasses the biscuit cutter). I place the baking sheets in the 400-degree oven and then collapse into a chair.
In one Mississippi cookbook I have, William Faulkner's niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, says her famous uncle ate beaten biscuits with marmalade almost every morning. How did anyone do this daily, even a professional full-time cook?
Thirty minutes later, my house smells faintly like bacon, a different knuckle is severely burnt, and the biscuits are done. They look the same as when I put them in the oven—a little browner, but neither larger nor smaller. I slather one with unsalted butter and bite down.
According to The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, the word "biscuit" comes from the Latin bis cotus, or "twice-baked." These have only been baked once, but, lord, I finally get it.
Beaten biscuits are indeed almost like crackers. They are like biscuit-flavored crackers. It occurs to me that Nabisco's Chicken in a Biskit crackers could also be a descendent of beaten biscuits.
This is not to say beaten biscuits are bad—and made by an experienced baker, they might be even better—but the people who told me they were an acquired taste are correct. Despite the lard, there is nothing to indicate anything about this pastry could evolve into the melt-in-your-mouth modern Southern biscuit.
I call my grandmother.
"Did you ever find out how to make beaten biscuits?" she asks.
"I just made some," I tell her.
"Were they good?"
"They taste like crackers," I say.
"I remember them being good with ham. Thinly sliced ham," Gee Gee says. "I know you don't eat ham, but there was something about it that made it good—the salt, I guess."
I start to ask her if she remembers anyone whacking the dough, but Gee Gee's already changed the subject to the construction going on in her apartment building in Houston. We talk about her new place and my new place, about my dog, about a recipe for muffins.
I realize that my grandmother might not have ever made beaten biscuits, or regular biscuits, but if it weren't for her, I wouldn't have known how to make them myself.
I realize I don't know what I'll do when I can't call her about recipes anymore.
Before I even know what's happening, tears are running down my face, splashing onto the stack of open cookbooks piled up next my computer. Maybe it wasn't a buttermilk blotch on that recipe but a teardrop, I think. Maybe I'll make those for breakfast next time—not tomorrow, but someday. Even if it's not my great-grandmother's recipe, it's still something my grandmother passed down, and as such, it's precious.
*—As cited in Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine: The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking by Joseph E. Dabney (Cumberland House, 1998).
**—Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie by Bill Neal (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).
***—The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook, edited by Sara Roahen and John T. Edge (University of Georgia Press, 2010).
****—As cited in The American Heritage Cookbook and Illustrated History of American Eating & Drinking (Simon and Schuster, 1964).
The original version of this story said the Mississippi Delta knows to hold on to things as long as possible. It should have said that the region knows HOW to hold to on things as long as possible.