There’s all different sorts of ladies, I guess, but for me (me being Mrs. Hate), as a little girl in the 1960s, a Southern lady in a small town would conjure up this image: playing Bridge or Canasta on Saturday afternoons while eating chicken salad and tomato aspic, with pound cake and boiled custard for dessert.
And to drink?? Russian tea was always de rigueur…I could promise you on a stack of Baptist Bibles that no Russian had ever, ever lived in my small town, but Russian tea was considered quite lady-like on Saturday afternoons.
For card playing Saturdays, you didn’t dress up quite like going to church on Sundays, but you dressed a little more fancily than you would if you were just around the house by yourself. And I daresay that the cards themselves were a little more fancy than the cards one played with for everyday play.
And I should know all this, because my grandmother taught me how to play Canasta when I was just a wee awkward little girl six years old, and I watched her make all the preparations for her Saturday afternoon Canasta games, games that were rotated through the little circle of friends’ homes…of course!! One of those unspoken rules that just simmer and birth over the years, rules yielding the blessed safety and sanctity of routine, with “taking turns hosting” being the first rule.
Canasta and Bridge days were certainly a carefully proscribed affair, with allowances made for each individual’s cooking specialty and allowances made for the idiosyncrasies of the players. Examples as follows: “you know Martha always has to sit in that chair” or “you know Julia has to talk ten minutes about her grandchildren before we can even get started” or “you know if Lois doesn’t get a wild card in any of her hands she’ll pout ‘til next time”…all harmless little comments for this little set of friends, no viciousness or spite regarding looks or husbands or monetary status. I should know, because these women were of a different time and character. Were they saints? Not necessarily, but they just “knew” that you just “knew how to act”. So hard to explain this…a combination of innocence, character, and too much hard work keeping house and going to church and circle meetings to have time to be vicious and catty.
Granny was a very neat, very thorough scratch cook with a delicate touch; no fear, there will be plenty of Granny stories to come. For this story, however, the focus is her Russian tea, which was even served in the sweltering hot days of July and August. Imagine 4:00 on a Saturday afternoon in July with the temperature pushing 100 degrees and saying “why yes, Mildred (Granny’s fantastic, plain-jane name) I’d LOVE some Russian tea”.
There was a sad time in the 1970s and 1980s when Russian tea was some concoction with a base of instant Tang powdered orange drink, or was it Tang powdered instant orange drink, or Tang instant orange powdered drink, or…so interchangeable with this Tang stuff. But hey, Tang had its place…astronauts and all that. Fun Fact: the creator of Tang, William A. Mitchell, also invented Pop Rocks, Cool Whip, a form of instant-set Jell-O, and other convenience foods (thanks to Wikipedia reference). And Cool Whip? Oh my Lord in Heaven…oh Lord have mercy…NO COOL WHIP!! ONLY LIGHTLY WHIPPED AND SUGARED HEAVY CREAM!! (but you know, there’s something about cherry Jell-O and Cool Whip…)
However, Granny’s Russian tea was as follows:
- 1 teaspoon whole cloves
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 16 cups cold water
- 12 tea bags
- 1 cup orange juice
- 3/4 cup lemon juice
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
Bring to a boil cloves, cinnamon, and water.
Remove from heat and add tea bags.
Let sit for 5 minutes; remove bags and cloves and cinnamon.
Add orange juice, lemon juice, (and surely you know the juices need to come from fresh oranges and lemons…no frozen or bottled stuff) and sugar and stir well.
Strain for extra fineness and serve hot.
I haven’t had Russian tea in years, and I mean YEARS, but digging for that recipe and remembering Granny and her organized, efficient, phlegmatic little small-town Southern self makes me want to mix up a batch right now…and it’s going to be 82 degrees today. Not bad Russian tea weather, but I long for July and August when it’s a smothering and humid 100 degrees and I will dress up in a neat shirtwaist dress with hose and small pumps and a string of pearls and a circle pin and drink scalding-hot Russian tea. Divine.
The day came when my grandmother was 93 and lonely (but hung on to life until 6 weeks short of 100), and my mother said to her “why don’t you call up some friends and play cards?” to which my grandmother oh so truthfully replied “they’re all dead” as she stared out the crank-out windows on her little back porch. Time passed, the living room that had hosted so many Saturday afternoon Canasta games was silent, and the card-players were just ghosts lingering only in our small-town memories, except for Granny…who had both the blessing and the curse of living beyond her span.
“Five O’Clock Tea”
HATE POINT: obviously, Tang-based Russian tea, complete with instant tea powder
LOVE POINT: Granny’s patience with me and enjoyment in teaching a lonely little six-year old girl how to play a grownups’ card game
Mrs. Hate looooves biscuits. You can’t say it any plainer than that.
How do I love thee, O Biscuit?
Let me count the ways:
- biscuits with butter
- biscuits with blackberry jelly
- biscuits with crabapple jelly
- biscuits with fig preserves
- biscuits with honey
- biscuits with Flowing Gold syrup
- biscuits with pan sausage
- biscuits with country ham
- biscuits leftover, halved, buttered, and put under broiler the next day
And then, of course, you’ve got throwing in some stale biscuits when making your dressing at Thanksgiving and Christmas AND, every now and then, playing around with turning them into a sort of biscuit pudding.
Picture a small country town in South Georgia circa 1962. There’s a farm—not too big, not too little—with a maid (who now would be referred to as a housekeeper)—not too skinny, not too fat (and this description is important for reasons discussed later)—wearing a white uniform. There will never be a better biscuit maker than Matt, point said.
Mrs. Hate remembers Matt as representing security, stability, love, kindness—all attributes we all need to possess, and our possession begins by having them demonstrated to us by others. Matt was a part of the nascency of these attributes in Mrs. Hate; her talent in biscuit-making was perfection, but her kindness and love superseded even biscuits. Love and kindness are eternal, the eating of a biscuit temporal. But the memories of those biscuits and the loving hands that made them…goodness gracious, what memories…
Now, as all good cooks have the talent of making things looks easy (in other words, things you THINK are so simple, but in reality there’s a knack to it so that sometimes you end up banging your head against the wall and say “why can’t I just COOK this and make it turn out right? there’s ONLY THREE LITTLE INGREDIENTS!!! Mrs. Hate’s getting worked up a little here in case you couldn’t tell), Matt didn’t disappoint in making biscuit-making look easy.
So what are the three little ingredients for Matt’s biscuits that can make strong women cry—and then headbutt the wall??
White Lily self-rising flour
buttermilk (whole please, not fat-free)
alas…no image of Land O’Lakes whole buttermilk could be found,
so just imagine your local grocery store’s buttermilk pictured here
**sidebar** of course, it’s much more traditional to use plain (all-purpose) White Lily flour and add your baking powder and salt, but MY MAMA said it was okay to use self-rising flour, and MY MAMA was as Old South scratch cooking as there could be. R.I.P. Mimi—we still talk about you, dream about you, wonder about you, analyze you.
So, back to the biscuits.
Now Matt could make biscuits without measuring…of course!! (headbutt time on the coolness and savoir faire of no measuring)
She would pour the flour into a what we called dough bowl, which was an old (again, of course!! wasn’t EVERYTHING old in Mrs. Hate’s childhood??) wooden bowl with dimpled gouges here and there. The gouges sure didn’t come from biscuit making, because all of that’s “by hand”, but probably just came from handling and slamming the bowl around when throwing it in the cabinet. (“Throwing” is showing up more and more in these little stories—one would think there was a lot of VIOLENCE and PASSION and SOUTHERN GOTHIC-NESS going on in the household, but no, it was just a busy little place.)
So, back to the biscuits for the second time.
**second sidebar** the buttermilk should be cold (don’t get it out beforehand to come to room temperature like you would generally do with cake-making), and IMPORTANT NOTE: always keep the Crisco in the refrigerator…you want it to be cold for biscuit making, and refrigeration also keeps it from going a little rancid.
Spoon in some Crisco (shortening) and get those little fingertips working. You want to just riffff the Crisco into the flour with a delicate touch of thumb rolling the Crisco over the fingertips, primarily the index and middle fingers, with a little ring finger action for extra riffff. Little finger not really necessary. Think on that statement.
You will have MAGICALLY known how much Crisco was necessary. If your magic levels are low on biscuit-making day, let’s say a couple of big spoonfuls (a little over 1/4 cup) of Crisco—the size of spoon you dish up vegetables with—and the flour (backtracking here) should be maybe 2 cups would do’ya.
And, if you’re a voracious, insatiable, manic, lunatic-crazy cookbook reader, surely you will have read all through the years about “work the shortening into the flour mixture until there are pea-sized lumps, but they don’t have to all be exactly the same size, you need some variation for flakiness blahblahblah”. All that is true. Plus (and often you will read this) you don’t want to overwork the dough; toughness results. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but toughness should not be in the heart of a biscuit.
Okay, and moving right along…
Get the buttermilk out of the refrigerator (whole, remember—the thought of low-fat buttermilk makes Mrs. Hate hate), shake it up good (so all the yummy fat is distributed), and pour in enough (about 1 cup) to make a slightly sticky dough when stirred with a fork (there’s that magic fork again which, after having tended to the hoecakes, is now tending to the biscuits—that fork earns its keep in this kitchen!!). And some folks even have special forks treasured for biscuit making and other cooking odds and ends…Mrs. Hate has HEARD of this and even seen a PICTURE of this…and the fork just looks like an old broke-down fork with maybe a tine or two missing. Will wonders never cease!!
So, you’ve stirred the dough, it’s sticky (searching for comparable analogy here—is that a somewhat redundant pairing of words?—and failing miserably), and now time to get a little creative like you did with the hoecakes.
Get the dough board out (not bowl), flour it with a handful of flour and swoop it around on the board, throw the dough on the board, dust your hands with flour, and lightly, gently knead for a few turns. So pretty when it’s done right. It goes from a sticky and slighty damp-ish looking mess to an immaculately smooth ball with a dull flour finish, if you do it right…just saying. Just thinking about that smooth dough ball takes Mrs. Hate back back back to that time in her childhood when she and her parents and her sisters and Matt were healthy and energetic and young.
Rolling pin or pat out the dough?? Let’s end up with a rolling pin, with a little flour dusted on it. Put your dough ball on the floured board, pat it with your hands a little to get the thing started, then lightly press/roll with pin.
The dough needs to be in the neighborhood of ⅜” thick. You can go a little more or less thick depending on your vision of a perfect biscuit. Personal preference is perfectly proper here (looove that alliteration…if any reader has seen Brideshead Revisited—the one with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews—the Anthony Blanche character was a m-m-m-master of stuttering alliteration).
Cut the biscuits out. A 2-3” biscuit cutter is recommended. However, in a pinch, one could take an old (Good Lordamercy, were Mrs. Hate’s folks packrats with old stuff or WHAT?!?!?!?) jelly jar, place it on the dough, and use a sharp knife tip to cut around the jar rim. Eureka!!! Biscuits!!!
Place the biscuits—all touching, please, all cozy and nestled next to each other—in a cast iron SKILLET, not a SPIDER (see hoecake post). Or, entirely okay to put the biscuits in old aluminum pie plate or even a 9×13 Pyrex dish. Some people like to spritz the pie plate or Pyrex with a little Pam—hmmmm on that, as Matt sure didn’t use any of that Pam stuff back in 1962. And please be advised here that a biscuit pan is kind of whatever, but cornbread is really only made in an iron skillet. Sometimes at holidays a Pyrex dish is okay for cornbread because the sad truth is it’s going to be crumbled up for dressing anyway, but for eating cornbread on its own, you really, really need an iron skillet to develop the crispy cornbread crust…another post, another day, and another alliteration.
You’re looking at probably a dozen biscuits here, maybe fewer. Just depending.
An oven temperature of 500 degrees sounds mighty high, but it works.
And before oven-time, some people melt some butter in a bowl (confession: microwave) and use fingertips (why bother using a brush?) to slide some butter around on the top of raw biscuit.
Handy Tip: it would behoove you to always have some Land O’Lakes butter on hand, and unsalted is really all you need—most of the time, like 99.9% of the time.
Almost done, you hanging-in-there readers you!!
Take the biscuits out when golden-y brown on top (ten-ish minutes or so).
And as good as they are same-morning/dinner/supper made, they are equally as delicious next morning prepared this way:
Split them, put a little softened butter on cut surface, put on cookie sheet with tin foil on it (or you can get all free-spirited and just put them on whatever…skillet, cookie sheet, old roasting tray, it’s okay), have that oven on BROIL, place in oven with door kind of cracked open and check verrrry frequently—it won’t take long. You just want them lightly toastified with a little crunchy thing going on. Heavenly.
And why was it important to describe Matt as being not too skinny and not too fat??
Matt, that precious angel on Earth, developed stomach cancer. Mrs. Hate’s mother and Matt were very close, and MHM (trying out this acronym here for brevity and typing efficiency) talked so long and so hard to Matt about going to the doctor, but Matt was a Jehovah’s Witness, and there are lots of Witness beliefs about medical procedures, blood transfusions, etcetera. No matter how much Matt loved MHM, she just couldn’t bring herself to go to the doctor.
So the wonderful Matt got cancer-skinny, but with a swollen stomach. In the saddest of ways, she was both too skinny and too fat. However, she was still perfect, of course, because love and kindness exist no matter our physical condition.
HATE POINT: canned biscuits
LOVE POINT: Matt and the memory of her sweet face