Part of the thrill in going to Kentucky to visit my cousins and other relatives, was to help prepare and sample the delectable homemade biscuits made by Mamaw. This truly was a ritual that took place almost every morning you spent with her. Whether it was during one of our visits to her or one of her visits to us, biscuits were always on the menu.
She was one of those truly grandmotherly types, who wore the plain cotton house dress that buttoned up the front, black orthopedic shoes and elastic bands around the lower part of her thighs, which held up her stockings. Towards the end of the day, the elastic bands appeared around her ankles, as she must have tired of the binding higher up on her legs, but was not yet ready to take off her hosiery.
Her silver peppered hair always looked as if it had just been permed, and the tight curls lay in ringlets against her scalp. She didn’t wear any jewelry that I can remember, but wore lipstick on special occasions. Inevitably when visiting, she always asked me to bobby pin her hair after she washed it. She sat in the bench in front of her dressing table and I stood behind her, looking at the two of us in the mirror. She kept her bobby pins in one of the two milk glass, chicken-shaped containers, which graced both sides of the dressing table. To begin the task, I carefully separated her hair into small sections, wrapped the hair around a finger, placed the coil against her scalp and then positioned bobby pins in a criss-cross fashion to hold her hair in place. Mamaw’s job involved handing the bobby pins to me one at a time. We talked the entire time I was fixing her hair, which generally revolved around stories about my father as a child or other people who had died. I often teased her that she knew more dead people than I knew who were living.
Once I had finished pinning her hair, I wrapped her head with a hair net to hold the sections in place. She went to bed secure in the knowledge that in the morning-Voila!-she had a head full of curls. We slept in her full-sized bed and as I dozed off to sleep, I listened for the sound of the trains, which passed her house nightly. The train’s whistle and the clanking of the train’s’wheels against the metal tracks mixed in with the soft snoring of the older woman I loved.
In the morning, the visit’s ritual continued as she adroitly and artistically set about making her batch of biscuits. First, she found the rectangular box of Diamond brand matches that she kept on top of the gas stove. In one quick action, she struck the wooden match against the strip of flint, which was on either side of the box, and the smell of sulphur permeated the air. She lit the over and began gathering her baking ingredients on top of the small kitchen table. She mixed the flour, baking powder, ice water and lard and the magic of the motion mesmerized me. She never measured her ingredients, but used her watchful eye to determine the appropriate amount of “this and that” as she carefully weighed the texture of the dough with eyes and hands, which were slightly knotted and gnarled, with closely trimmed and unpolished nails. She worked the dough furiously in the crockery and melded the dryness of the flour with the moisture of the ice water and the smooth, white, greasy lard. No one bakes with lard now, but it was a staple in Mamaw’s kitchen and was the one ingredient, which gave her biscuits their flaky, rich texture and taste.
Once mixed, she gathered the dough in a ball, sprinkled flour on the table’s top and began the artful kneading of the dough. She punched the dough gracefully, yet forcefully, continually alternating between adding additional flour and rolling the dough around in her hands until it lost its stickiness. When she deemed the dough ready, she pulled her old, wooden rolling-pin out of the cabinet, floured the table and the rolling-pin to keep the dough from sticking and used the force of her hands to roll the dough into a less than perfect circle, which was a half to one inch thick. She used a jelly jar, which had a small opening, dipped in flour, to cut the dough into the pre-cooked circles.
She repeated the reshaping and rolling of the dough until she didn’t have enough dough left over to roll. At that point, she gathered all the scraps into one large biscuit, which was not symmetrical in shape or height. This leftover biscuit was her special biscuit-the biscuit that all her grandchildren wanted to eat-the privileged biscuit.
If Sissy and I, or one of our cousins both at her house, we would have to draw straws or pick a number between 1 and 10 to see which of us earned the honor of having that particular biscuit. That biscuit was called Big Ben. To Mamaw, Big Ben was the memorial biscuit in honor of my grandfather Benjamin Robert Strange, who we called Papa, and her husband.
Whoever received the honor of eating Big Ben, smeared it with butter and some of her homemade plum jam. She never told us why she named a biscuit after Papa, but I suspect that she made biscuits for him often and he loved her biscuits, and this was how she honored him after he died.
I made biscuits for my own children on occasion and carried on the tradition of Big Ben that was a special part of my childhood; the careful attention to the process of mixing the dough, the rolling and cutting, the gathering of the scraps into one large biscuit, the smell of the gas oven being lit and the taste of the plum jam on my lips. A sausage biscuit at McDonald’s? Ha! Can’t even come close to my Mamaw’s Big Ben.