Mama Clarsie would let me eat as many of her delicious biscuits as I wanted and never tease me about being greedy or say that I was fat. I was ten years old and “pleasingly plump,” mostly because I loved her food and would go upstairs to visit her and eat whenever my Mom and my dad, her son, let me. We shared a two-family house in St. Louis.
A favorite memory was when Mama Clarsie taught me how to make biscuits. She didn’t use measuring cups but had an old china tea cup that she used to scoop the flour. She instructed me to fill the cups twice and showed me how to level the flour with the swipe of a butter knife. Then she taught me to add the other dry ingredients. She used Old Clabber Girl baking powder and measured it with a soup spoon. She poured a small amount of salt into the middle of my palm. She had me sift these ingredients together in the hand-sifter with the red wooden knob at the end of the handle. I loved cranking it.
She then had me scoop the lard, for that was what we used then, into a tin metal cup that she used solely for this purpose. She showed me how to cut the lard into the flour . She used her fingers but taught me to use two forks. After the flour and lard were blended together, she told me to make a well in the center of the mixture.
I can hear her saying, “now slowly, slowly, pour the buttermilk into the well – just enough until you fill it. You can always add more later if the dough is too dry.” The buttermilk was in a glass bottle. It had been delivered to our front porch that morning by the milk man, who came twice a week to our street. Mama Clarsie drank buttermilk with most of her meals – especially neckbones and navy beans with collard greens on the side. I didn’t like the taste of buttermilk straight out of a glass but I loved the flavor they added to biscuits.
I sprinkled flour on a piece of wax paper on the kitchen counter and then I dusted the big wooden rolling pin with flour. First, I had to roll the dough around in the flour making sure it wasn’t too sticky to roll out. Then I ran the rolling pin over the dough a couple of times. Next I did my second most favorite thing to do – dipped a glass into flour and cut the biscuits with it.
“Put the glass straight down,” she instructed with a smile. “You’re doing it just right – you’re going to take my spot as the biscuit maker in this family,” she laughed.
We set the oven to 425. (Mama Clarsie lit the pilot light in the gas oven with a match, something I was thrilled to see but scared to try to learn to do.) While the biscuits were in the oven, she told me to grab the pan of butter that she kept in the refrigerator and set it on the gas burner to melt. She turned the fire down real low so the butter would melt without burning.
After about ten minutes, I grabbed the oven mitts and opened the door to see if the biscuits were brown. They were!
Mama Clarsie put the pan of hot biscuits on a cloth kitchen towel and took a small paint brush used just for this purpose to brush the melted butter over the top of them. We didn’t invite anyone else to eat my first batch of biscuits. The two of us sat down and drank hot cocoa and had biscuits with syrup – the name of the syrup we used was Sho-Is-Fine. It came in a tin can. We also had apple butter and grape jelly. My favorite topping was apple butter, but I also liked to dip the biscuits in syrup.
Mama Clarsie passed away at the age of 94 a few years ago. I am now the head biscuit maker in my family although I use butter or vegetable shortening (or a combination) instead of lard and real maple syrup instead of imitation. Whenever I make biscuits, I am transported to her kitchen and the love and patience she had for me. I felt warm and safe eating those biscuits. I have taught my daughter how to make them and in a few years will teach my granddaughter, too. Recently I helped a friend’s daughter, who is 10, make her first batch of biscuits, continuing the tradition of love and sustenance begun more than forty years ago.