Oh. My. Biscuit.
In search of Southern comfort, made from scratch
Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter
In a land where every other mother’s child was once fluent in biscuit, folks don’t make the Southern staple from scratch so much any more. Fresh biscuits, by hand, still warm from the oven. Big as a cat’s head or bridge party-petite. Biscuits to be smothered in gravy or preserves, dipped in honey, drizzled with lemon glaze, stuffed with tenderloin, topped with strawberries and whipped cream — or just savored plain.
Oh, yes. If ever there was a cornerstone of Deep South cuisine, surely it must be the biscuit. So, I set out recently to find a few biscuiteers who still put heart and soul into their leavened craft. Not bad work, if you can get it.
People will tell you there is a whole generation in Kennedy, Alabama, that grew up on Jimmy Thomas’ biscuits. The easygoing home cook with a ready sense of humor makes big, buttermilk cathead biscuits by the dishpan-full. He’s good at it, as one might expect; he began practicing at about the age of 10.
“I started playing with biscuits, trying to make some like my mom did. I never did perfect it — but I did end up perfecting my own recipe,” said Thomas, standing at his stovetop on a June afternoon. He uncovered a cast iron skillet of fresh drop biscuits, each about the size of a fist. Every eye in the room followed the batch, like a hawk on prey.
Kennedy Baptist Church got Thomas in the habit of cooking for crowds. An Easter sunrise service might call for 200 or more biscuits; a regular brotherhood breakfast a mere four dozen or so. Leftovers are never a problem, laughed Thomas’ wife, Janet. He’s become the biscuit go-to guy, “although my wife will cook them occasionally, to let me know she still can,” quipped the cook, just loud enough for his spouse to hear.
Great biscuit-makers are always pumped for their secrets. There is no magic formula, Thomas will tell you.
“They’re all basically similar; most have the same ingredients. It’s the combination of ingredients and the amounts you put in,” he said, downplaying his wizardry. Like most seasoned cooks, he’s long past measuring out those ingredients. It’s more about sight and feel, and the biscuit maker’s sixth sense.
That being said, Thomas is particular about what he uses — vegetable oil, not lard (and none of that canola, sunflower, peanut or blended oil), and only White Lily self-rising flour. The most common mistake he sees? Too much flour; it makes biscuits dry and hard. Dough consistency is all-important. But even experts can’t control everything. “The barometer has a lot to do with it; you can take the same exact recipe, and the next day it won’t come out just the same,” he allowed.
He excels not only at biscuits, of course. Thomas can prepare pretty much anything, and often does, when he’s not building something around the house.
“We just like to cook and feed people and have people over,” said his wife. The deceptively simple statement is at the heart of all this cooking in the Thomas house, which was Janet’s childhood home. The “magic” is obviously a generous spirit.
JIMMY THOMAS’ HOMEMADE BISCUITS
Yields 12-16 biscuits
1 cup Wesson/Crisco vegetable oil
1 ½ cups buttermilk
½ cup whole milk
4-6 cups White Lily self-rising flour
• Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
• Mix oil and milk in a large bowl.
• Add about half of the flour and mix well with a large, stiff spoon. Keep adding flour until dough forms a soft ball. Check consistency of dough by touching with the palm of your hand. If the dough sticks to the hand, add small amounts of flour and mix until no dry flour is visible on the dough ball. When consistency is right, you should be able to touch dough without it sticking to your hand.
• Grease a large cookie sheet with cooking oil. Coat palms of your hands by placing on the oiled cookie sheet.
• For each biscuit, pinch off a ball of dough a little larger than an extra large egg. Roll into a ball between your palms. Place on the pan and pat out to about an inch thick.
• Bake for about 15 minutes, or until bottoms of biscuits start to brown.
• Turn on broil and brown until biscuits are desired color.
• Remove from oven and butter tops of biscuits. (optional)
A LIFETIME OF BISCUITS
Lucy Bell Jones Smith’s pretty biscuits, slightly larger than a 50-cent piece, “melt in your mouth,” said her 21-year-old granddaughter, Daysha Humphrey. Smith doesn’t make as many of them as she once did. At 79, she’s earned a rest. But when she does bake up a platter full, everybody in the family compound out on Lucy Cove Road (named after her, of course) is likely to show up at her door in the Lowndes County Prairie.
Smith is slender, a charmer with quick observations and lasting memories of 49 years she assisted in the household of the late Ike and Julia Wade Franklin. She may be retired, but she still rules her kitchen.
“I learned how to make those biscuits by watching my grandmama, Ella Petty. She cooked them on a wood-burning stove,” recounted Smith at her dining table after the photo shoot for this story. She turns 80 on Sept. 11. She already knows about the surprise party. It’s likely not much gets by her. She’s helped raise so many kids in her rural community, she frequently answers to an honorary “mom” or “grandma,” her granddaughter said. The lucky ones all had her biscuits.
“I’ve never tasted any like hers before,” said Humphrey, who lives next door. “Ever since I’ve been born she’s cooked the best biscuits I’ve ever had.”
Smith’s biscuit recipe — and the recipe for her tomato biscuits — are included in A Grand Heritage, first published in 1987 and still a sought-after, signature cookbook, compiled in Columbus. Her personal copy burned in a house fire decades ago. I left her with a new one. But really, no need. The recipes are memorized, as familiar as old friends.
“Lord no, people don’t make biscuits from scratch these days — they go get ’em out of a can,” Smith said, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “But these,” she continued, pointing to the pan of her pale golden biscuits nearby, “these are better.”
LUCY BELL SMITH’S BISCUITS
Yields about 30 biscuits
2 cups plain flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
• Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
• Sift dry ingredients into a bowl.
• Add shortening and milk and mix with a fork until a moist dough forms. Dough should be moist enough to handle lightly. Knead two or three times.
• Roll out to approximately ¼-inch thickness; cut biscuits and place ½ inch apart on a greased cookie sheet.
• Bake 30-35 minutes.
LUCY BELL SMITH’S TOMATO BISCUITS
Vine ripened tomatoes
• Cool biscuits, slice in half and spread mayonnaise over each half.
• Sprinkle with salt, pepper and basil.
• Peel tomatoes and slice ¼-inch thick.
• Just before serving, put tomato slices between biscuit halves.
SHOOT FOR AMAZING
Should The Temptations’ Otis Williams ever come through Northeast Mississippi again, I hope he’ll be good and hungry for biscuits. It would mean the world to Starkville native Michelle Tehan. Williams, the last original Temptation, is at the top of Tehan’s “biscuit bucket list” of people she would love to make her specialties for.
Tehan is passionate about all things biscuit. Not so many months ago, making five dozen of them was a big deal. Now she makes more than 1,000 a day.
“I didn’t know what ‘mass’ meant!” the dynamic 34-year-old laughed, perched on a stool in The Biscuit Shop on Starkville’s South Jackson Street. Michelle and her husband, Alan, opened the quaint storefront in June. The “sweet old building” is the place of her dreams, funded in part by a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.
A year ago, Tehan worked full-time at Mississippi State University. She was also getting up at 3 a.m. to make biscuits to deliver to businesses before work. And there were the triplets, now 7, and her youngest child, now 5, to rouse and get off to school, plus biscuits to make for the Starkville Community Market. Life in the Tehan household was “wild,” to say the least. There had to be something better.
It helps to understand that Michelle Tehan is driven, and thoroughly happy when up to her elbows in dough. So when the idea of trading in her job for a career making biscuits materialized, she refused to let it go. She comes by that grit naturally.
“My grandmother, Dot McMurray, is always going, going, going, and I’m the same way. It’s the way the Lord made me,” said Tehan, who dabbled with her first biscuits as a child sitting on McMurray’s kitchen counter. “I don’t see any reason in sitting still — and I want it to be right.”
Tehan still gets up in the wee hours to make signature biscuits — cinnamon sugar, blueberry, strawberry, cranberry orange, chocolate chip, cheddar, sausage cheddar, sausage cheddar jalapeño, bacon cheddar, lemon glaze. Every ingredient, except glaze, is baked right in the dough, dough she can’t yet bring herself to let anyone else make. It’s that important.
The family is all in. When school’s out, the children — Hollise, Houston, Hannah and Andrew — settle in for “dinner and a movie” in the front of the shop, while mom and dad prep for the next day. The kids pitch in on tasks like stamping biscuit bags. “They are at the right age to see that hard work pays off,” said their mother.
The Tehan’s great biscuit adventure is a way of taking control of their own lives, said the entrepreneur. “It was all or nothing. I love making biscuits. I was going to give it a shot. … I want to shoot for amazing!”
Jimmy Thomas, Lucy Bell Smith and Michelle Tehan share more than a talent for great biscuits. The three practitioners derive a joy from what they do. They know a scratch biscuit, made with care by hand, isn’t simply sustenance. On a good day, it can be a gentle reminder of people and places — of an old wood burning stove, a grandparent’s counter or big family gatherings.
And some days it can stir a memory of a mother who sang along to The Temptations as she vacuumed and cleaned before breakfast on Saturday mornings, when her kids wanted to sleep in.
“When Momma had The Temps going, we somehow knew it was going to be a good day,” Tehan said.
Otis Williams, are you listening?