Making and Remaking Grandma’s Biscuits
Like many of you, I grew up around my grandma’s table. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of Sunday dinners (that’s the noon meal for those of you who didn’t grow up in the South) at her house in North Carolina. After church at Benson United Methodist, we would drive thirty minutes north to Micro and eat a Sunday dinner that rivaled any Thanksgiving feast. There would be a variety of vegetables from her garden—field peas, butterbeans, squash, collards, corn, tomatoes, and homemade pickles—one or two meats (usually fried chicken, chicken pastry, hamburger steak with gravy, country ham, or fried fish), a cake or pie (or both), sometimes cornbread (hushpuppies), and biscuits, always biscuits.
Many years later, after my wife, Katie, and I had moved from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Richmond, Virginia, we were back home for one of those Sunday dinners, and I asked Grandma if she remembered the first time she made biscuits. Her face lit up as she told me the story of that first time when she was eleven years old, the oldest of nine children. I asked her if Katie and I could come back one weekend so I could record her story and film her making biscuits. There were lots of reasons I wanted to do this, but mostly I wanted to learn how to make her biscuits since no else in my immediate family knew how.
At the time I was working on a documentary film about a Southern gospel singing convention in my hometown (that’s another story), and I had access to some high-end audio equipment. I was also really into Super 8 film, which had been supplanted by video as the home movie format of choice. So I recorded the sound and images separately, capturing her story on digital audio and filming the biscuit-making on Super 8.
Making Grandma’s Biscuits was a bittersweet experience for me. I shot the film in 1999 or 2000, but didn’t edit it until 2003, when Grandma was diagnosed with late-stage cancer and was at home with hospice care. She and one of her sisters-in-law watched the movie with me, laughing and comparing their biscuit-making techniques. She died a few days later.
A few Thanksgivings ago I decided I would surprise my family by making Grandma’s biscuits. I did one practice run with Katie and our kids, Logan and Waverly, which turned out only slightly better than Grandma’s first time. Despite my fear of failure, I went ahead and made biscuits for that Thanksgiving meal. To everyone’s surprise, including my own, they “tasted like Grandma’s” and were good enough for Mom to ask me to make them again for Uncle Donald (her brother) and Aunt Marie’s visit the next day and then two more times during the weekend. They got better each time.
However, the best part about making the film and the biscuits is that my kids, who were born after Grandma died, talk about her like they knew her. And I guess they do, because every time we make her biscuits or watch the film, Grandma is alive and well and with us.
The recipe as given to me by Grandma:
Three handfuls of flour
Piece of lard
Glass of buttermilk