Mom's Biscuits

Recently, my offering to a Sunday brunch pot-luck was a double batch of Mom’s Sunday biscuits. I knew from my childhood that this recipe resulted from practicing over and over for my grandfather until it was just right. I asked my mom to tell the story again, because family recipe stories can be as revealing as other life stories. I was not disappointed.

My grandfather, Paul, decided that my young mother would be difficult to marry off, so she  needed to learn a useful skill. A recurring theme in his relations with his four daughters, matrimony was a source of some anxiety in the immigrant family. Nevertheless, my grandfather decided to teach my mother to make biscuits in order to “attract a husband” when she was old enough. Paul qualified on that account, having served as a cowboy cook in his youth. The morning of a cattle drive in Northern Arizona in the early 1920’s, the assigned cook quit over an unknown slight.  Paul, a recent arrival from Mexico, volunteered for the position. Due to time constraints, restless cattle, and a lack of other volunteers, Paul took over the chuck wagon after the cook decamped. He learned on the job. Dutch oven biscuits, made in a campfire, became his specialty.

My mother recalled long Sunday drives after mass. As this was prior to Vatican II, no one was allowed to break their fast before church. Driving further and further into the desert north of Phoenix, they would take in the landscape. Appearing barren, the desert would reveal its colorful and often beautiful secrets. Still, everyone was hungry. An incorrigible tease, Paul would ask if a place looked good to stop. The other occupants in the car would say, “yes!” He would find something wrong with the site, and keep driving. This would go on a few times before he finally pulled over.

Once in an ideal spot, he would build a campfire. Paul would take the old cast iron dutch oven out of the car and place it in the fire. He quickly made biscuit dough and dropped spoonfuls into the oven. He covered the oven, and they would wait. My grandmother would have packed other picnic food, but those biscuits, slightly burnt from the oven, were my mothers favorite thing in her young life. The whole morning at mass, the interminable drive for what seemed like hours was worth it in the instant that hot quick bread melted in her mouth.

Carolyn was game for the biscuit making enterprise. He would whisper to her, “Isn’t it about time you practiced those biscuits? Remember, only one cup of flour.” The recipe would make just enough for four to six biscuits. Happily, she fell again and again for his ploy and eventually did perfect that recipe. It took some time, but she began to wonder exactly who was benefitting from all of this “practice.”

As one who fell for both my parents’ pranks and jokes again and again, it was good to hear that she, too, was a child once. My grandfather passed away after a long illness when my mother was twenty. Sweet memories of her childhood, when her dad was still healthy, were revealed in that recipe.

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