Monday, November 17, 2008


And so we measured out the salt and the baking powder, me with a spoon for a long time---a teaspoon was measured with the same spoons we used to stir coffee, and a tablespoon was the round-bowled soupspoon that came in the silverware chest. Mother would dump the required portion into her palm, toss it in, and be done with it. I saw a little set of copper measuring spoons at a friend’s house when I was about twelve, and thought they were just the cutest things---the silver ring that kept them attached in their little cuddle, and the neat way they hung on the hook right over the counter. I asked for, and got, my own set for Christmas that year, and measurements became an easier matter.

I made countless pies and cakes and cobblers and bars, sifting out that same flour---that thing didn’t get empty, ever, and I imagined that the bottom inch of the can must still hold the same flour it started with, still there years later when I went off to college.

I won a mixer at the yearly Halloween Bingo, and graduated to pound cakes and chiffons and angel foods, with little prinkings like saving a cup of the batter to tint pink and marble through, or a scatter of cinnamon-sugar between glops of the batter in the old tube pan. A poundcake was what it was, originally a pound of every ingredient, with maybe a little lemon peel grated in, or a glug from the Watkins vanilla bottle (how I loved that stuff---I wore it as perfume for about a year, flitting about the halls of school, confident in my ethereal, aromatic aura).

Butter all the way up the sides, then great gobs smeared over the center insert, with a carefully-cut round of brown grocery bag paper pushed down over the tube center. More butter onto the paper, as I thought, every time I peered through its translucence, of the pioneer and log-cabin forebears whose light was filtered through such a pane; then the batter was spooned in. The cakes came out of the oven more brown than golden, a rich redolent brown of toasty crust, with a crumb like velvet, as moist as a bitten peach.

A knife all around the inside, removal of the tube insert, and a rack-on-top tilt, then again, to cool rightside up, preserving the lovely creasefault in the top crust. Rich slices fell away from the knife, to go onto clear glass plates with a topping of sugared strawberries or peaches dripping their juices off the spoon, and a neat pouf of just-whipped cream. I made one of those every Saturday of my High-School years, and some extra for a party or church social.

And then, when I had my own home, Maw, who lived right next door on the farm homeplace, had the exact silver can under her own kitchen counter, right down to the big circled “HF” imprinted in the lid. She had a bowl and sifter in hers, as well, and contrary to Mother’s fastidious spooning and stirring, made biscuits BY hand and WITH her hand. She, too, put twice-too-much flour into the bowl, made the crater by banking it against the sides with her fingers, and then three-fingered a clop of Crisco out of the three-pound can.

Her busy little soft hands were quick as lightning, working that flour into the handful, fingertips busily rubbing, til the “peas” stage. I don’t think she measured the buttermilk, either, but just poured from the BIG crockery pitcher, lifting it with a big sigh, and then I’d clean the white clotty handprint off the handle with a wet dishrag before replacing it in the refrigerator. She also made the buttermilk in a big crock, which somehow took up most of the left side of the refrigerator, possibly two gallons worth. Dried milk, water, a cup of last week’s making, overnight on the kitchen counter with a neat tea-towel cover, and voila!! Good as a fresh-churned batch.

I loved to watch her hand squish that biscuit dough; at first the buttermilk shot through her quick fingers like soapsuds, then as the flour absorbed some of it, the dough became a heavy, pliable mass, with the flour worked in from the sides til it was to her liking---a quite wet dough which would seek to escape from her two hands when she lifted it from the bed of flour like a limp cat.

Onto a flourcloth it went, the cloth homemade from newbought Curity diapers, each sewn double for strength, and covered in a thick layer of flour. Several lifts of the four cloth edges in turn, to even up the dough and give it a thorough coating, then pinches quickly rolled through floury palms, placed gently into a Crisco-rubbed skillet, with a final two-knuckled salute to the top, making twin dimples to hold the pools of brushed-on melted butter. The cloth also went back into the bin after use, its dusty weight settling into the dark to await its next needing.

All our biscuits were different, all good, all crusty and golden and steamy-soft within. Maw’s had a crispy bottom crust, beloved by Paw, who would separate several biscuits with a quick twist, butter them BEFORE we said the blessing, then distribute the dripping top halves to the little ones, while he applied a liberal dousing of sorghum or pear preserves to the cookie-crisp, butter-saturated bottoms. For Paw, life was simple: gravy went on the soft, spongy top halves, syrup on the bottoms. Would that all our paths be so easily chosen.

Mother’s biscuits were a sometime thing, a Winter-night breakfast-for-supper, with a platter of leftover potroast serving as a cushion for two or three fried eggs apiece, or with their favorite treat: brains and eggs. The butcher in our local store would save her a “pair,” which she would simmer in a little boiler til the gray scum rose to be skimmed, and the delicacy attained the same unappetizing hue; whisked in great lumps through almost-done scrambled eggs---to them it was a feast. I’d make do with biscuits and jam. Hers were tangy and light as marshmallows, from all the mis-measured baking powder, and though she mightily loved to eat biscuits at my house, where Martha White Self-Rising was the rule, she never once made biscuits with other than Plain flour.

I have no idea what became of any of those lard cans; in our first house, former home of my husband’s grandparents, one cabinet door of the tiny kitchen swung DOWN, revealing a V-shaped space meant to hold flour, with ancient siftings still visible in the bottom. I could not bear to keep mine in something so open, so it became the repository for folded grocery sacks. Today my own five pounds of Martha White lives in a big old blue Tupperware, and I have made biscuits over the years with everything from Crisco to butter to oil to Ranch Dressing. And I seldom measure any more, except for baking, which needs a stern, exact hand. I’m just glad I was allowed to be in those kitchens, standing tall on that silver can, learning to cook.

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