A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 9
I never talked about recipes with my hostess, but I watched her on that visit and subsequent ones. And, I learned a lot by sitting on a step-stool in her kitchen as we talked about all kind of things while she cooked. I learned quickly that a meal without bread was really not a meal. Her biscuits were on the table at least twice a day. A large aged rolling pin sifted with flour flattened the dough to about one inch thick. A small juice glass or biscuit cutter was used to cut out biscuits the size of a large silver dollars and laid on a tray and slid into an oven already heated to 350 degrees. Thirty years of baking had trained her eyes to pull them out at the precise time when they had risen to a maximum height and revealed hints of gold. They were just crisp enough so the eaters, if they listened carefully, could hear a slight cracking of the crust of the biscuit. Light as a feather, it was easy to break them into two pieces. Sometimes they arrived at the table so hot that a slight cloud of steam escaped into the air when they were split on a cool morning. Only a few were placed on the table after everyone was seated and the blessing of the food finished. They didn’t dally around with the prayer…short and to the point. Helena was always arriving with hot biscuits when someone had finished their’s. I was always good for three or four every meal. Usually, butter, sorghum, and some flavor of fresh jam were passed with frequency, sometime without asking.
I learned for the first time the fine art of sopping. Mr. Mark said, “Have you eaten Benton County Sorghum?”
“No, sir, but I am willing to try.“
He pulled a small glass fruit bowl from the lazy Susan in the middle of the table. I could see the shining brown/black contents through the glass. “With your knife, ya make a small opening in a tablespoon of butter, sort of like a tiny fishpond. Then ya spoon in sorghum until the pond is full. Gently take ya fork and work the butter and sorghum into a nice paste.” I watched as he coaxed the dark brown goo off the spoon into the his little pond.
“After making yellow trails through the brown goo, you’re ready to sop a biscuit into the mix. Don’t get much better than this.” His eyes twinkled as he thought about a second serving of flaky biscuits that he knew were in the oven.
I followed his example carefully, raising the sopped biscuit toward my mouth and caught a whiff of a novel smell that almost made me put it back on the plate. But, I was glad I didn’t. The nearly burned sugar cane syrup mixed with butter aroused quite a delight from my taste buds.
During the same meal I was introduced to some of Mr. Mark’s smoke cured country ham. I watched Ms. Helene cut several slices right off the already baked ham. The little white spots on the meat made me wonder if it was spoiled but i was too scared to ask. Later, I would learn those were signs of a ham right for baking or frying. It would be another visit before I learned the long process of curing a ham and made my first visit to the smoke house. Country ham is definitely one of the greatest treats that came from the heart of the south. It can’t be adequately described. Mr. Mark’s curing was noted throughout the county. It was the saltiest meat I had eaten, but it blended so well with the so-called “wrecked” eggs and the biscuits. Country ham leaves very little residue in the skillet after frying, but when Coca Cola or water is added and boiled down a tad it produces the famous “red-eyed gravy,” a salty juice that seeped easily into my third biscuit and produced another sensation I could hardly wait to repeat on another visit. It was always a chore whether to top my biscuits with the gravy, the sorghum, or some homemade blackberry, strawberry or peach jam.