Years before Mama died I’d always said that I couldn’t bear the thought of not having Mama’s biscuits anymore once she was gone. She’d tried to show me once or twice, but Mama hit everything at a run and I never really had a chance to pick it up. I’d hoped to get her to show me when she came down to Florida to be with us this spring, but then she died last December.
Other than the obvious heartbreak of losing Mama, an extra loss was the loss of her cooking. People in North Carolina still talk about Mama’s cooking, and will probably do so for years to come. There aren’t many people in Kings Mountain, at least among the older crowd, who didn’t eat her cooking at one time or another at Peggy’s Restaurant. Some of those people can appreciate as much as I do the wonders that have been lost to us because Mama rarely wrote any of her recipes down.
Anyway, since Mama died I’ve decided to figure out the recipe for her biscuits, for my own selfish reasons. This is easier said than done. Mama used to always tell me “Lord, they’re just biscuits. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make.” Well, it was easy for her. She’d been doing it since she was a young girl. For the rest of us, it seemed like we were doomed to come close, but never quite get it right. As you can still hear people say in North Carolina, “nobody made biscuits like Peggy”. And you can see in old family videos my uncle Johnny holding up a biscuit during a family dinner and declaring “Peggy’s biscuits”, as if it was the greatest prize at the table.
Everybody wished me good luck, but nobody thought I had much of a chance at figuring out Mama’s recipe for her biscuits. But I was determined to try. I figured if anyone had a shot at it, it was me, her son. I kept thinking about what Mama said about so many of her recipes, that “it’s the simplest thing”. She seemed genuinely perplexed that I was always asking about this recipe or that recipe. So I figured maybe the trick to figuring out any of her recipes would be to not “over-think” it. Keep it simple. Maybe the trick was not go by a recipe, but to just go by instinct. One of the reasons Mama didn’t know how to write down a recipe for some things was because she never measured anything. She just knew what it needed.
As I said, I figured that if anybody could figure out the biscuits, it’d be me. I worked beside Mama at Peggy’s Restaurant for years, and who knows how many thousands of biscuits she made up there during that time. Sure, I didn’t watch her every step each day when she was making biscuits (I had my own duties), but I was convinced that at least some of her technique might have lodged somewhere in my brain during those many years. Maybe I’d learned it by osmosis.
Ever one to hedge my bets, I looked up a number of Southern-style biscuit recipes and tried to reconcile them with what little I knew about how Mama made hers, latching onto only the stuff that felt right and made sense to me. And I also firmly believe that there might be some genetics involved, as well. I’ve always had the knack for taking a few ingredients and making something of it. At least one of my friends was always mystified by my ability to do that, telling people I was a “chef”. I always believed that the knack for that came directly from Mama.
Anyway, today is Easter Sunday. I felt compelled to take another crack at making Mama’s biscuit. I tried one time a few weeks ago, and though the biscuits tasted right they were pretty flat. Of course, I remembered that when Mama cut biscuits, her dough was thicker than what I’d had, and I figured I would double up the ingredients the next time around. Mama always said she had a hard time, because of the cafe, making a small amount of anything. So that’s what I did today, doubled up on the ingredients, and filled a pan with biscuit dough that was at least twice the thickness of what I’d had last time.
When the biscuits came out of the oven, the end result was pretty good. The biscuits were the right thickness, and they still tasted right. And though some of the biscuits rose higher than others, overall I think I pretty much did it, although there are still some things I’ll need to refine. And I won’t be convinced it wasn’t an accident until I do it a at least a few more times.
I won’t take credit for this, though. All I tried to do was remember what Mama did. And all through the process I felt Mama’s presence. When the dough I was preparing was too dry, I not only knew instinctively to add more buttermilk, but I almost heard Mama’s voice telling me “it needs a little more”. And when I was folding my dough in preparation for rolling it out, I folded it over three or four times, but I seemed to feel her telling me to fold it a few more times. I listened.
In the end, I doubt I’ll ever make biscuits that are as good as Mama’s. But at least now I feel like I can get in the ballpark. One thing that Mama will always have over me, and one reason her biscuit-making crown is in no danger, is practice. How many thousands of biscuits did Mama make in her lifetime? Hundreds of thousands, maybe? I’ll never make them enough to get as good as Mama. And I’m not living with a biscuit eating crowd down here in Florida. So it is what it is.
In the end, these biscuits came out pretty well. I don’t think Mama would be disappointed. And as much as I’d love to have her here to tell me what I did wrong and how I could make them better next time, Mama is gone. This will have to do.
Anyway, here’s to my Mama, Peggy Chaney. I could think of no better way to honor her on an Easter Sunday than to get up and make some biscuits. And if I’m ever going to find Mama’s spirit with me, something tells me, after the life that she lived and the impact she made on people’s lives with her cooking, that I will find her spirit in the kitchen.
Thanks, Mama, for helping me with these biscuits. I promise I’ll do better next time.