It was one of those spring afternoons. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was pleasantly cool and everything smelled of growing and blooming things. Strawberries and rhubarb were already ripe with the promise of early morning snacking in the gardens and homemade jam with biscuits from my Grandmother. The air was redolent with pollen and the soothing sounds of bees and tree frogs, everything in existence seemed to be celebrating spring.
That day in the late 1980’s, all of us children and teenagers were also celebrating. It was difficult to get us to pay attention to anything whatsoever. There were baby chicks just hatched, piglets begging to be caught at a great risk to the pursuer, baby goats bleating and running for their bottles when you showed up in the late afternoon as the mist poured down the impossibly steep terrain of the Appalachian Plateau.
It was honey harvesting time and most matriarchs had thrown open their pantries, moving it seemed almost simultaneously from a mood of hoarding and rationing to gorging on last year’s jams and canned fruit. The first eggs of the spring were being gathered and cooked in every way imaginable, especially easy-over in bacon grease with the ever-present jar of peach preserves and lard biscuits occupying the center spot on the kitchen table.
There are four brothers in my immediately family, with three sisters. Altogether, back then, we were probably an overwhelming sight. My mother drove a VW Van, bright yellow with a white top. It seemed that it was always either broken down or about to be, but it was cheap, easy to repair and went like a tank in the snow. It was also incredibly slow and the defroster never worked and there was no A/C at all. We didn’t care. We didn’t know enough to realize that by the time and geographical place in which we lived, that van was considered one step above walking. We loved the thing.
We were coming home from school that particular day, wild with energy and so anxious to get to Grandmother’s house we could barely wait. Only about three miles from school, her tiny house was a gathering place for the entire Matney clan. We would gather on holidays or whenever we happened to wander in, picking apples and helping with gardens and of course, always eating.
The brother closest to me in age, by virtue of being the oldest I got to sit in the front of the van and hold my youngest sister while Mom drove, was already wildly competitive with me. I guess that’s to be expected with a large family of brothers. We would fight each other just as quickly and savagely as we would fight anyone who opposed us or bullied any of our family members, particularly our sisters.
So, in the spirit of competition, our new game was to see who could win a footrace from the parking spot in front of the garage to Grandma’s front door. She would always be there in her simple dress and apron, ready to dictate a winner, which would sometimes be me and sometimes be James, based on who she thought deserved it that day. Despite the fact he was younger, he was incredibly fast and it was getting harder to beat him, despite my being a few years older.
I heard the door behind me bang open before Mom even stopped the van. I realized that James would get a few seconds head start and hastily handed my sister to my Mom, even as she was telling me to get things out of the back. Nearly deaf, I had the perfect way to not listen: Just turn my head. Voices faded into the distance and I was in a near-silent place where the only thing that mattered was outrunning my brother to the front door, where I could already see Grandmother waiting, ready to declare a winner and a reward of a freshly baked cookie.
We ran as only little boys can, heedless of footing and safety, worried only about speed and the thrill of the competition. James had taken the shorter track, straight down the mountain past the oil pit where our Grandfather and nearly everyone else in our community changed their oil, allowing it to spill heedlessly into the ground, where it was supposedly rendered inert, somehow.
James took the lead and I realized that there wasn’t much chance of catching him. He went through the front gate and I went over the fence, an easy-for-me-then-impossible-now leap nearly seven feet in the air from the hillside, over the fence and into the yard, where I rolled to my feet and bolted for the door. James was still ahead and laughing hysterically, knowing he had won the race. I was one step behind him when he hit the front swinging door.
It had been a cold winter, colder than normal and a chilly spring. The swinging front door was still armored with its glass planes, protection against the wind gusts and helping with a barrier to the rest of the house.
Traveling as fast as a little boy could possibly go, with me one step behind, James ran through the glass. He tried to stop, last second, then just put his arms up and went through. I had only a split second to realize what had happened and then we were on our way to the emergency room with an eight-inch gash in James’ arm.
Why were we racing? Besides the cookie, Grandma always kept an old crock with a cork top full of cat’s-head biscuits. She made them with lard every single morning and they were still delicious in the afternoon, topped with honey, sorghum, peach jam, fresh strawberries, old gravy, fatback or whatever else she happened to have around. We would eat until we were stuffed, much to my mother’s dismay as she would try to restrain us enough to make sure we would eat dinner when we got home, which would be much healthier, in her mind, than what we were scarfing down at the moment. After biscuits, it was time to play with the chickens, gather firewood, chase the cats out of the sheds and look for new flowers.
As time progressed, lard fell out of favor and became nearly obsolete, replaced by its distant and government sponsored cousin, Crisco. Vegetable oil replaced emulsified butter and olive oil fell to the side. People started getting fatter and fatter, all the time wondering why. Grandma finally gave up lard under pressure from the family and bemoaned her weight gain immediately after.
I’ve missed those biscuits for years and I’ve tried unsuccessfully to replicate them or something like it, with absolutely no luck. I couldn’t find lard, full-fat buttermilk or the old self-rising flour that Grandma Audrey used. I then discovered a local flour source, a place to buy lard at the farmer’s market and full-fat buttermilk at the country grocery near us.
I was ready, but with no recipe. My Aunt Vickie Baldwin, raised in the deep south and with all the traditions that entails, sent me the following recipe:
“OK Ron, try this: Place approx. 4 cups self-rising flour (not plain like I had said earlier, I was having a “senior moment”) in a large bowl. Make a “well”, or indentation, in the middle of the flour. In this indentation put approx. 1 cup lard. Slowly pinch the lard with the flour between your fingers, mixing it. When you get it half incorporated, slowly add 1 cup buttermilk, continuing to incorporate the mixture with your fingers. Once it is all mixed and of a consistency of dough, pinch double walnut sized amount of dough off, roll it lightly in more self-rising flour, and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake at 375 until golden brown, maybe 15 minutes, maybe longer. The key is to work the dough as little as possible, the more it is kneaded or messed with, the tougher your biscuits will be. Pull them out, split them, add butter and either your honey or sorghum syrup, or maybe homemade fig preserves, and eat. If I lived closer, I would make them with you.”
I did find that they are better, in my opinion, in a cast iron skillet that is over one-hundred years old handed down from my Grandmother. Maybe her spirit still lives in the shiny black surface. I found myself a little superstitiously studying this dark, liquid-like surface after breakfast, after Laura and Nolan had eaten most of the biscuits. Maybe I could sense her presence, I’m not really for sure. But when I closed my eyes, I felt I could smell the faintest aroma of a coal and wood fired cook stove, hear the singing of the tree frogs and I thought that for one brief moment, I was a teenager again, racing my brother towards the smell of good things in the kitchen.