A bowl greasy with lard, a bowl dusty with flour, a bowl yielding biscuits, or a bowl full of love: it does not matter what it is called, Grandma Marie’s wooden bowl holds tradition for my family. It is small and light tan, with dark swirls like drawings in the sand by children on the beach. The grain is as smooth as silk, marred only by a few nicks in the surface from years of use. On the underside, a crack continues to spread wider and wider with years of use. That same bowl is the only bowl my grandmother has ever used for biscuits. Offered a new one, she refuses.
My grandmother Marie’s biscuits tend to be a little different than most—they are smaller, just half an inch thick and two inches across. Rather than the thick, fluffy, and flaky texture of most, hers are firmer with a crisp outer layer. These small biscuits pack a taste unsurpassed by any other–almost indescribable. According to my Uncle Randy, “when you add ham or sausage they taste like heaven.” Their taste, however, is not what makes them so central to our family events. It is the shared tradition of making and eating them that makes these little biscuits so important.
Each holiday, as we gather around and prepare the table, Grandma skillfully presses her hands deep into the bowl to thoroughly mix the dough. Before long, the mix is ready and she places the biscuits in the oven for exactly twenty minutes before carefully removing them. Uncle Randy, my mother’s older brother, immediately butters the biscuits before placing them in the center of the table—where they are quickly grabbed and eaten. This delicious ritual is at the center of my family’s planning. Almost all of our family gatherings are held at my grandmother’s home in Henderson, North Carolina, so after a day is chosen for the family to meet, we plan to arrive when her biscuits are ready. Randy arrives first when the biscuits are being rolled out and placed on the pan to bake so he can butter them fresh out of the oven. The rest of the family arrives as the oven door opens and Grandma Marie pulls out the baking sheets. When the biscuits hit the center of the table, it is our cue to say grace and begin our meal. The tradition is simple and without gourmet pretentions. The wooden bowl that makes it possible remains unchanged except for the slowly widening crack.
My grandmother is beginning to teach me how to make her biscuits the way she always has, but in slow and easy steps. In her kitchen, she is instructing me more about her life and its struggles than about biscuit making. She has always had a strong reliance on her faith and loves to talk about God with her children and grandchildren. This strong faith is her motivation for everything she faces in life. Marie grew up in 1930s Henderson, married young, and raised four children on her own after the loss of her husband. She talks about the difficulties of working two jobs in order to provide for her family. Her biscuits, made as a team and served as a special treat and a break from daily burnt toast, were a shining, hopeful moment for her children.
To this day, Grandma is still as busy as ever and is one of the toughest women I have ever met. At eighty years old she took a line drive hit to her forehead while watching me play softball and came out of it smiling. Working with her in the kitchen has inspired me to be more like her and to learn more about our family as a whole. She has told me the wooden bowl will eventually be mine after I learn how a perfect biscuit is supposed to feel in my hands. With her bowl comes the responsibility to continue the family tradition and the love that makes it possible.
To everyone else the bowl is just a bowl, but to me it is a possession that should be treasured and passed down from one generation to the next. Even as it becomes old and worn, the bowl offers the family a cherished point of connection held deep in our hearts. With each layer of lard caked into its pores, a new memory is kneaded into the grain of the wood. Every laugh shared, every family story passed down, and every tear shed resides in its surface worn smooth by my Grandma’s knowing hands.
Biscuits (According to Grandma)
- Wooden bowl
- Snowflake self-rising flour
- Jewel lard
- Clean fingernails
- Use a sifter with turning handle to sift out enough flour for the number of people
- Add lard and buttermilk according to flour
- Mix with hands until it feels right
- Roll out the biscuits and place them on the pan
- Cook at 475 degrees for exactly 20 minutes
Jody Marie Rowland