I do think I must have been born under the sign of the lard can, for we had one in both of the houses of my childhood, and their twin resided under the kitchen cabinet of Maw, who was my first Mother-In-Law, and my three children’s Grandmother. My Mammaw’s kitchen always had a Hoosier cabinet, with the big pull-out enamel tabletop for flouring and rolling things, and one of the upper glass doors opened to reveal a huge white funnel-shaped bin which ended in a sifter, just high enough to slide a flourpan beneath and snow down enough flour for the biscuits or piecrust or bread.
This sifting was my own little chore, whenever I was in residence, and required the sliding over of the big silver can which held about forty pounds of lard, straight from the store, though Mammaw was well-versed in rendering her own lard from the hogs raised on her homeplace when she was growing up. She had moved to the little town when she married, and bought all her staples at her sister’s grocery store.
I stepped up onto that can lid and took hold of that little white handle with its wooden marble tip, rolling it forward like reeling in a fish, as the scritch scritch of the metal wires rubbed along the screen, scattering the white dust downward. It would ROLL backward, but you just couldn’t do it that way---it would jinx your biscuits if you didn’t turn the handle right.
I loved sifting that flour, and since the pan or bowl sat safely inside the cabinet, I could sift with one hand and let the dust fall gently through my outstretched left hand, accumulating little finger-shaped ridges that held peaks like the tiny ranges on my paste map of Brazil. Til I moved, or upended my hand for a quick shake and brush across my backside or apron front.
I was allowed to fill the pan to its required level---lots for a pan of biscuits or for measuring for bread, less for piecrust, which was made in the Red Bowl. Four crusts were made at a time, and the flour was dipped out accordingly---in a Never-Fail recipe passed down for years---“Flour, Lard, Water---2 Cup, Cup, Quarter” for two crusts. You have to say it REAL Southern for the rhyme to work.
And Mother used the same recipe at our house, with an exact duplicate of the lard can, except ours held the flour itself---probably twenty pounds at a time, into which was nestled the blue speckled enamel biscuit pan, with the sifter placed down inside, sometimes with the lost dried crumbs from the last sifting still rattling forlornly against the screen bottom.
You popped off the lid, pushed down on the lip of the pan, and grabbed hold of the lifted side to remove the pan, dumped the sifter with a whack against the side of the garbage can, then filled it with a big old heavy silvery scoop, taken from its nail inside the cabinet.
So on I went, through childhood, sifting at one place, being allowed to “cut in” the shortening at the other—my Mother caught on to Humko and Crisco EARLY in her marriage, through the kind help of the grocery-store sister. Mammaw would not let Mother cook at all, because her left-handed cutting and stirring just “looked wrong” and so relegated her to outdoor chores like feeding and tending the chickens, as well as dispatching and cleaning one nearly every Sunday morning. Mother never DID eat chicken, in any form.
She could work in the garden, pick and shell the peas and beans, and “put up” the jams and jellies, sending those rivers of rich juice through the battered chinois into the waiting dishpan, stirring that roiling, fruity mass as she watched the clock for the exact moment that would render the sugar-rich juice perfect---thick and moundy on the spoon, yielding a clean shining track to a fingerslide across the shimmery pool in a chipped saucer.
Because of her own banishment from the kitchen, Mother was quite willing and ready for me to learn at her apronside. She’d repeat from time to time, “I ALWAYS said I was going to let MY girls cook,” from the time I had to climb ONTO the lard can to sift and measure and stir. I’m sure my first “making” of biscuits consisted of several stirs around the flourpan with the wooden spoon, with the attendant flurries of flour onto the counters and floor which my young eagerness caused. The flour in the pan was WAY too much, with the Crisco cut in carefully in the indentation, the right amount of buttermilk stirred in, gently pulling down the side flour from the crater and stirring it in until the right texture was reached. THEN you could reach in, closing your fingers like spiderlegs around a handful of the soft, squishy dough, to roll into little round pillows, leaving more dry flour in the pan than you had used in the biscuits. This was re-sifted BACK into the big can, the pan and sifter replaced, and the lid tightly sealed for safekeeping.
Soon I was aproning up and hitting the kitchen for real, standing on the can, a chair, tiptoes, whatever it took to be allowed at that food and all the excitement of seeing something I made come out of that oven, that stewpot, that Jello mold. Our Aunt Lucy’s cook had cautioned Mother about the sin of using “self-raisin’” flour---that was the resort of a trashy cook, and anyone who didn’t keep a fresh can of Clabber Girl in the cabinet---well, nobody would eat HER sorry biscuits, anyway.