I walked into the soup kitchen last week to find that I was the only volunteer that day for lunch, and Monica was on vacation. Her substitute, Jordan, runs the teen center. He had two chowders heating in the oven when I arrived, one corn, the other fish.
“How do you feel about making biscuits?” he asked when I came in.
“I feel fine about making biscuits,” I said, with private misgivings, which I kept to myself. The machismo of the kitchen, even a soup kitchen, does not allow for fear of wheat. I’d keep my mouth closed while I made them, try not to breathe the flour dust, scrub my hands and sponge off my clothing afterwards, and hope for the best.
Jordan handed me a handwritten recipe he’d copied off the Internet for a large enough quantity of biscuits for today’s lunch: 8 cups flour, ¼ cup baking powder, 2 cups oil, 4 cups milk, but only 1 teaspoon salt. He went back into the office, where he was working on the teen center’s weekly menu.
The oven was already hot, so I got out a big bowl and measured the flour from the huge sack on the pantry and carried the bowl quickly back out to the kitchen, leaving behind the inevitable puffs of flour dust in the air, trying not to breathe any of it. I rolled up my sleeves and averted my face as I stirred in the baking powder and a good shaking of salt, a lot more than the recipe called for, because 1 teaspoon of salt was not nearly enough for all that flour.
I considered the “2 cups oil.” If I used oil, I could stir the batter with a spoon and drop the biscuits onto the cookie sheet with a smaller spoon. I wouldn’t have to touch the dough. I could get it done and into the oven quickly. I’d be safe from flour contamination.
But they wouldn’t be biscuits. They might taste all right, but biscuits involve creating an alchemy of starch and fat that you can only get by rubbing them together by hand until they’re blended.
The soup kitchen has no butter, only margarine. I took out a 2-cup block, unwrapped it, and cut it into the flour mixture. Then, using my bare, clean hands, I rubbed and rubbed it into the flour. It took a while. Toxic, dangerous flour covered my arms up to my elbows, hung in puffs in the air in front of my face. I didn’t stop until the magical alchemy happened and I had grainy, fatty, yellowed flour, ready for the milk.
I made an indentation in the flour, splashed in some milk, worked it into a paste, added more milk. I didn’t measure the liquid: another secret of real biscuits. The flour will tell you how much it wants. When I had a ball of clean, firm dough, not too sticky, not too dry, I got out a big board and set it by the bowl. I filled the measuring cup with more flour, not even bothering to be prissy about it anymore: I was too intent on my project to care by now.
I floured the board and turned the dough ball out onto it.
“Jordan,” I called, “is there a rolling pin in this kitchen?”
He emerged from the office. “You can just drop it onto the sheet with a spoon,” he said. “They come out fine.”
“I have to make them my grandmother’s way,” I said with a laugh. Did my grandmother even make biscuits? I have no idea. I was referring to some mythical grandmother, an old-fashioned Midwestern farm wife who got up at dawn to feed her hard-working family breakfast with real American biscuits.
I patted the dough until I had an inch-thick layer, which worked fine in the absence of a rolling pin. Then I took a drinking glass and cut out the biscuits one by one. I took the leftover scraps, patted them into another layer, and cut them out. I did a third round, and then they were done.
I arranged them on the sheet and baked them. They came out puffy, golden, moist, and light.
Later, during lunch service, a tall, elegant black woman with a strong Southern accent approached the window.
“I’ll take another biscuit,” she said. “Girl, you made these biscuits?”
We smiled at each other. “Yeah,” I said.
“These are real biscuits!” she said. “Like my grandmother used to make. I haven’t tasted these since she was alive!”
I gave her two more.
The other night, I roasted a chicken. I stuck a cut-up lemon and a handful of pitted olives into its cavity, squeezed lemon juice over its peppered skin, and put two big pats of butter on top of it. I surrounded it with whole peeled shallots and halved peeled carrots and parsnips set into a coating of olive oil, covered the pan with foil, roasted it at 500 degrees for 20 minutes, then uncovered it and turned the oven down to 350.
I made a broth with the pile of parsnip and carrot peelings and tops, the shallot peels and ends, the gizzards from inside the chicken, pepper, and salt, simmering it until it was sweet and earthy. I strained it and whisked polenta into it and let it cook until it thickened, then stirred in a lot of minced fresh basil and parmesan cheese.
When the chicken was moist inside and crackling outside, and the root vegetables were soft and had begun to caramelize in the chicken fat, and the polenta was cheesy and savory and redolent of basil, we ate.
Afterwards, I poured the chicken fat that was left in the pan into a coffee cup and put it in the fridge. Tonight, I’ll fry wedges of red cabbage in it until they’re soft and browned and velvety, just like my mythical grandmother would have done.