Why I Don’t Need to Have My Grandmother’s Biscuits Again
My mother had a mother who made a pan of nine buttermilk biscuits three times a day. She used the same speckled blue enamel bowl, and over time, had kneaded her biscuits in a determined and focused kind of way so that the bowl was left lopsided from the efforts and wobbled on flat surfaces. She kept the bowl in the fridge in between batches, always with a little flour and a few shaggy bits of dough hidden under a kitchen towel.
My mom remembers her childhood breakfast with a crisp attention to detail. “They were never burnt, but they were salty, and flaky and you buttered them when they were hot out the oven.” This is how it always is when she talks about the food she ate growing up — elements are recalled with exquisite detail. Over the years, and after listening to these memories about the way the room felt, what her mother was wearing, and what the food tasted like — I feel as though I, too, dream about the food my mom recalls from her childhood.
Don’t ask my mom to make any biscuits, though. She’s not a baker, and I can’t claim to be one either. Despite our nostalgia, neither my mom nor I have homemade biscuits on our horizon. But I’ll never forget the taste.
I’ve only had my grandmother’s biscuits a handful of times and have just one memory of eating them. I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen sitting at the round breakfast table with a styrofoam plate full of molasses and biscuits in front of me, my feet never touching the linoleum floor. Molasses was the default companion to biscuits in this kitchen. It was sweet enough to feel special and because you only needed a small pour, you rarely ran the risk of being without it.
Despite having gone 33 years without ever seeing my mom bake a biscuit (or anything that would even remotely suggest she’s likely to) I still like to tease her, and drive the point home every now then that I am made to dream of biscuits I’ll never again eat.
A few mornings ago, after receiving a particularly dramatic accusation of biscuit neglect from me the night before, my mom is having no more of it. She calls me up early that Saturday with the lack of remorse only mothers seem to have about waking you up at unholy hours — with my Aunt Barbara already on the line.
“Hali. Tell Barbara Ann what you said to me.”
I know what this is about.
Serenely, I repeat my claim: “You never made me a biscuit in my life.”
Very quietly my mother speaks to her sister. “Save me, Barbara Ann.”
Without missing a beat, and in a voice that sounds like my grandmother’s when she sings you happy birthday, my Aunt Barbara replies, “And you don’t want her to” — the message of a hidden blessing hardly masked by her voice.
All my mother’s people have something to say about how little interest she had around cooking growing up. They chide her with a blend of sincerity and affection that is only present when you’re being teased by people who love you. “Your mama was never really interested in cooking,” my Aunt Barbara said. “But she’s the first to cut the cornbread!” And although my Aunt Barbara has emerged as the primary cook in the family, even though she can make my grandmother’s biscuits, she’s cut from the same cloth as my mother. These are people who are more likely to remember what something tastes like than how to make it. They are eaters first.
The three of us stay on the phone for a while that morning. I listen to my mom and her sister whip through stories about the people who would show up to eat these biscuits. Their conversation is fueled by nostalgia — for their childhood and for their mother’s cooking. When they go off on tangents so far off the topic of biscuits for a few minutes, I knew they’ve forgotten I’m even on the phone.
When the conversation comes back to biscuits, it’s with a taste for molasses in tow. “And honey, when you break off a piece of that salty biscuits and drag it through the molasses…” I get the sense that, despite a love for biscuits, what they actually crave is the combination. What they wanted is to eat those biscuits with molasses. Finally, I can get in on what’s being said.
I haven’t had my grandmother’s biscuits since I was 7 years old, but I know molasses. Growing up in upstate New York, my mom poured molasses over our pancakes on Saturdays — that thick sweet lava cascading down the stack, mixing in with the melted butter, brushing up against the bacon until every bite was tinged with its slightly bitter sweetness. For many years, maple syrup wasn’t even a consideration at breakfast.
These days, molasses is a pantry essential. I’ve lugged the same bottle around from one kitchen to the next for years because you can: Molasses can last up to a decade in the dark recesses of a kitchen cabinet. Perhaps the food we love moves with us beyond our first introduction to find a place in our contemporary pantries. Perhaps we get to bring the ingredients we love with us to the life we’re living now and make them our own. That’s what keeps them in our pantry.
Although I’ll still use it on those mornings when maple syrup just won’t do, molasses makes its most frequent appearance on ice cream. Dark chocolate ice cream has never known a more mysterious and sophisticated companion than molasses. Add sea salt to that combination and you’ll never know a sexier sundae.
Later, after we hang up from this marathon conversation about biscuits and molasses, I wonder about my mom and aunts as kids: Did they wait until that wake in the molasses closed back up into a seamless expanse before dragging their biscuit through it again? That’s what I did when I was young and my mother poured molasses on the plates of pancakes she made for breakfast. Not a biscuit, but a pour of something that felt just the same.