How to Make Mamaw's Biscuits
This weekend we were in my mother’s kitchen. My mom, my sister, my grandmother, and me. “She got tarred of me pesterin her, so she finely let me hep her,” Mamaw was talking about her own mother, from a time when Mamaw was only ten or eleven, she said. “Then she’d roll me outta bed evry mornin from then on to make biscuits.” She laughed at this. Gina, my sister, gathered everything she needed to make Mamaw’s biscuits: flour, oil, and buttermilk. Mamaw stood opposite my sister, on the other side of the counter, ready to give instruction.
Gina had been planning this for days. My family is going through a difficult time right now. My Papaw just spent a week in the hospital for surgery. Now he and Mamaw are staying with my parents as Papaw continues to recover. Mamaw has dementia and Alzheimer’s, which complicates everything. That Gina wanted to do something to help did not surprise me. She is a nurse and has a nurse’s personality: she is a caregiver and has a servant’s heart. For the months before my other grandmother passed away, Gina helped care for her in countless ways. When medical emergencies arise, I usually call Gina first.
So she had decided that Mamaw would teach her how to make her homemade biscuits today. Mamaw’s biscuits are famous in our family, and rightfully so. They are delicious. Golden, crispy on the bottom, fluffy and light on the top. They are perfect for jelly or gravy or just butter. They taste like my childhood, and my mother’s childhood, and her mother’s, and hers before her. Mamaw’s biscuits taste like family and love and legacy.
That’s why the recipe cannot be written down. That, and Mamaw doesn’t really use a recipe. “Okay, now just dump three or four cups a flour in there, or whatever, just til it looks right, ya know.” But it takes a skilled and knowing eye to know what it’s supposed to look like. Even the temperature of the oven is not exact. When Gina asked her what to set the oven to, Mamaw responded with “You gotta cook em fast. The faster the better.” 450? “Oh, I dunno. Whatever you think. Just gotta cook em fast.”
It requires a skilled hand to know how much the dough should be kneaded. Gina slapped the lump of dough onto the counter and pressed the heel of her hand into it, and again. Mamaw watched from the other side of the bar. “Yeah, that’s right.” She nodded. “Don’t mess with the dough too much. But be rough. Tell that dough who’s boss.” As Gina slammed the dough onto the counter, Mamaw laughed, more than I had seen her laugh in weeks, maybe months, possibly years. The more instruction she gave, the more of my grandmother I saw, before her dementia made thinking and remembering difficult. She was not confused, she was not absent in her own lost thought. She was there in the kitchen with us, being useful and having fun. Gina had given her something back she hadn’t felt in a long time: a purpose.
My sister continued following her instructions exactly, turning the dough just so between her hands while Mamaw looked on, her chin resting on one hand, her other hand pointing to where Gina had missed a spot. “Mmmhhm. That’s right. You got it.” She supervised with great importance and even greater delight. I admired the way my sister was taking care of my grandmother, how she was making her feel good, strong, and healthy. And all she needed was flour, oil, and buttermilk to do it.
Gina put the biscuits in the oven and fifteen fast minutes later, they were done. Mamaw bit into one, the crumbs falling from her lips. She closed her eyes, savoring the taste, and smiled. “Not bad for your first time.”