We, the students that is, never called her by her name, even those who knew it. She was the Biscuit Lady. Always capitalized, always with a certain reverence that occasionally bordered on worshipfulness. Five days a week, rain or snow, flood or tempest, she got to campus at around four AM and set about making pan after pan of scratch biscuits. Trust me when I say that if Jesus had gotten four of those biscuits and two fishes from the little boy by the lakeshore, He might have had some fish left over but there would not have been any spare biscuits. They were that good.
Miss Biscuit Lady (to use the proper form of address) had been working at the college since the Dead Sea was merely sick, or so it seemed to my age group. She’d been there at least 20 years, probably more, and the work-study students reported that while she was working, no one but no one set foot in her corner of the big commercial kitchen without specific permission, and then only to remove a full pan and carry it to the oven. She made about twenty dozen biscuits, tops brushed with butter, five days a week. They almost floated out of the pans, they were so light. As is customary, you could get gravy (sausage or red-eye) to go with the biscuits, but I ate mine plain, the way G-d and mother always intended.
My senior year Miss Biscuit Lady finally retired, for the third or fourth time, I think. The college went into mourning. But she was firm, and heaven knows she’d earned every penny of her retirement. She’d been a cultural fixture on campus as much as the azaleas and the fall formal dance. Her biscuits were one of the things that told you where you were and what traditions governed ( or had once governed) life on campus.
You see, this college was in the Deep South of the US. In the South, scratch cooked food is love, and an art form. A light, fluffy, hot biscuit with a swish of melted butter on the top, steam rising from the white interior, says, “I love you. I’m proud of you. Here’s something to give you strength.” Back in the day, biscuits were more luxury than staple for many Southerners, and a rare treat in hard times. Today they are easy to buy, but still a challenge to make well at home. And the Biscuit Lady made them very, very well.
Did she love us? I do not know. Probably not, since there were 250 college students, plus faculty and staff and hangars around, and only one of her. But she came to the college faithfully, rain and shine, even once in a snow storm (OK, half an inch, but it still shut the city down because people don’t drive in it well), for several decades. She took pride in her work, I know that much, and it showed. I suspect, in the long run, people like Miss Biscuit Lady have done more good for the world than most of the professors at the college have, with a few notable exceptions.
One Southern tradition that deserves to be reserved is being mindful of the people who work. The college employed cooks, cleaning staff for the dorms (your room was your problem, but they did the kitchens and common areas and bathrooms, G-d bless them), maintenance and grounds keepers, and a few mechanics. I was taught that you thanked these people, that you respect them for the work they do, be it for your college or at your place of business or in your home. Hand work is hard work is respectable work. And you won’t starve if you are willing to roll up your sleeves and scrub the floor, or beat up a pan of biscuits.
To this day I miss the Biscuit Lady and her gold-topped gems. I don’t have her touch. And I admire her gift and faithfulness. The world would probably be a better place if we had more Biscuit Ladies.
I can make a fair biscuit, but only by following a recipe and nothing compared to the delicacies that my mom and grandmother make. And of course they can’t give me a recipe for theirs, since it involves measurements like, ‘enough flour so it looks right’. In the modern days of specific temperature adjustable stoves and ovens, anybody should be able to make fairly good (and repeatable) dishes by following a recipe, just pay attention and follow the instructions. But a true cook is an artist and they can make a tasty meal out of whatever is available, by adding a handful of this, a pinch of that, and enough of the other to ‘look right.’
Baking is a special art form. Other things can be modified and fuzzed, but baking is a whole ‘nother process. And yes. My step-grandmother had a killer white fruitcake with orange glaze that she made using “enough of this and a coffee cup of that more or less.” Sigh. And that’s how she wrote the recipe down. If she wasn’t dead I could kill her. 🙂