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December 17, 2019 Nonfiction

Biscuits 

D. Nolan Jefferson

Biscuits  photo

You preheat your oven to 425°F before measuring out two and one third cups of self-rising flour into a glass Pyrex bowl. White Lily is the best though it can be hard to find outside of the south and is worth tracking down. It’s milled from a soft winter wheat, and with it your biscuits puff up into soft, light pillows that literally melt in your mouth. You know this because you’ve tried all-purpose flour and added baking powder, the leavener that makes self-rising flour what it is, in a half dozen variations over a couple of weeks and they just aren’t the same. They’re not bad, but the biscuits are heavier than you’d like, more dense; all-purpose flour contains more protein which in turn creates more gluten. 

Good biscuits require ample use of your icebox. Your buttermilk should be as cold as you can get it and since you keep the three or four pounds of your unsalted Costco butter in the freezer anyway, it’s already frozen solid. The store brand you get from the warehouse store isn’t bad at all. It has good flavor, is cheaper in bulk, and you know you’re going to go through quite a bit of it before you find yourself happy with the final results of all your efforts. 

You are in a dark blue apron grating half a stick, or four tablespoons of butter into frigid shards of pale yellow dairy fat. You toss them in the flour with your hands, but mostly use just your fingertips keeping all of the contents inside the bowl. The process is dull and methodical enough to divert you from your feelings, at least for a spell. 

It’s nearly Christmas. You didn’t expect that your first semester as a faculty member in your first full-time job would go so quickly. That you would find yourself wrapped up in going above and beyond the primary responsibilities of your job description. You do this because when you were still in grammar school, your parents sat you down and gave you The Talk about how Black people are seen in America. Meeting the bare minimum isn’t enough and you have to work twice as hard to be seen as half as good. It’s just how it is. You keep this in mind, as its informed your entire life so when you end up on a campus with seven thousand students in a new city three thousand miles from where you grew up, you won’t fuck it up befouling your family or setting back the race. 

You miss out on buying a plane ticket home because you were too busy working twice as hard as you were instructed, until it was too late. When you finally realize it, the price is cost prohibitive. You could approach your father for the money, but you are also making the most money you’ve ever made in your life and it feels a bit off to ask. DC is expensive. Your student loans are enormous. He’s retired now and on a fixed income. You keep your mouth closed, you don’t mention it, and you don’t go home to California. This is fine you tell yourself, because you’ve got a few friends here, some colleagues from the office, and DC, if it is anything, is a very gay city. This is what people tell you. They don’t tell you that despite the endearing moniker, “Chocolate City”, the District’s Black population is in decline due to rising real estate costs and unbridled gentrification.

Your late mother made biscuits from a thin cardboard tube she bought at the grocery store. When you think about it now, you still squint and shirk away from the pop! the can makes when you puncture it at the precut seams that just barely contain the dough under pressure. Her mother never made biscuits. She was more of a cornbread woman. You wonder how this came to pass given their prowess in the kitchen, the fried catfish, baked turkey wings, and smothered cabbage; the oxtails, the rice and gravy and your southern roots. But then you remember that Mawmaw didn’t bake much if at all outside of her cornbread, and while your own mother was great at cookies and cakes, she never made pies. You wonder if there’s some kind of connection between what goes into a pie crust and the process of making of biscuits from scratch. 

 

Your first batch is lackluster and serves as a baseline from which to improve. You patted out the dough into a rectangle and then, like a letter, turned it over onto itself before going into more tri-folds before patting it out again and you repeat this four or five times. Then you punch them out into rounds with a biscuit cutter. Each turn and fold builds layers of flour, buttermilk, and butter and keeping these items cold means that when placed into the oven, the heat causes the water to evaporate, creating steam, and making these layers rise, ensuring a flaky biscuit.  It is not unlike the process used in laminating dough for croissants or puff pastry, if not just a bit more crude, the end result still deliciously effective. They aren’t bad. You can do better. 

 

You spend your time making biscuits because you don’t have anything else to do. It’s cold and you aren’t prepared for the snow because you grew up in San Diego and have never owned a proper coat. Your basement apartment is cozy and warm enough and consistent use of a 425°F oven helps. You try out the opportunities the District has to offer over the holidays and while you enjoy the National Portrait, Freer-Sackler, and Renwick Galleries, you can’t help but feel the loneliness. You don’t reach out to the few friends you have, because you don’t want to be a bother or a nuisance. You end up by yourself watching strangers ice skate in the sculpture garden of a different Smithsonian and all you can focus on is the couples and the families and visitors as you scrutinize their smiles and wonder why your face can’t find one of its own. You pay closer attention to the queer couples, and find yourself jealous of the ease in which they exhibit the little things they seem to take for granted and which you covet: the banter, interaction, and engagements, the way their shoulders knock into each other as they laugh and joke and skate around and around the rink. What you wouldn’t give to be touched, you think, as you sit in a window seat on a bus heading north from the Mall back to your empty apartment.

You wonder what sex is like within a relationship, since you’ve never been in one. Is it elevated to something more, love-making perhaps? Does it have more heft and feel more substantive than a clandestine hook up where your pants pool around your ankles, the fabric  bunched, fallen in creases, the whole thing not even worth the effort of removing them altogether where you might never know ole boy’s real name? You dwell on the closeness with which these couples walk while they sip from steamy domed paper cups and consider the patience they show with one another. You wring your hands on why you can’t seem to make a second date happen. Or if you do, why they ghost you. Maybe it’s racial, you contemplate, these gay white boys who seem to think that because they too are queer, that your shared marginalized differences from straight people somehow put you on equal footing. The idea that your queerness alone is enough to tether you, to bind you to one another, and the way they don’t take your Blackness into account—that thing which is you at your core—doesn’t sit right with you. You shrug them off since they seemingly can’t see the complexities of Black people at all. You tire of how they view you, reducing you to what they see in movies and news, in social media and PornHub. 

You then think of the brothers who don’t understand you either because you are an academic and a nerd who likes comic books, prefers National Parks to watching sports, books to reality television and are too tired and too old to decode the posturing and measuring up that seems to be required in swiping around the apps. The sizing up, the evaluation, the inquiry of where you are in some pecking order is exhausting and you realize that even Black people can be duped by the clichés and stereotypes that exist around a common group of shared people. This tears away at a part of your insides. 

Dating is not worth the trouble, you say. You think maybe he’s out there somewhere. The proverbial one, but that you don’t have the stamina to wade through those who aren’t to find him. After thinking this over and trying to reconcile the distinctions between being alone and loneliness, you give up and withdraw further into the dim, short, dark winter days. You exercise what little control you feel like you have over your own life when and where you can, which is inside your tiny kitchen. 

 

Biscuits require both sugar and salt, though they aren’t especially sweet or savory. After selecting what you like from a handful of similar but different enough recipes, you arrive on one that doesn’t need an egg or too much butter or the labor or time required to fold the dough over and over and over again. You come to learn that this kind of biscuit is akin to what culinarians and probably grandmothers and aunties before them call a drop biscuit. After the dough comes together in your glass Pyrex bowl, you parcel it out in four ounce scoops into a pie plate topped off with all-purpose flour. Winter wheat self-rising flour is good for tenderness, but because the baking powder it contains isn’t particularly tasty, you toss these wet balls of dough into the baking powder-free all-purpose flour to coat the outside. You shape them gently in your hands as if they were little newborn babies or tiny kittens. You do this with each bundle, guiding the moist, supple dough between your palms until it comes together, nestling them into a cast iron skillet or a cake pan right up against one another. This ensures that when they hit that hot oven, they will rise and bake up rather than spread out over the course of roughly twenty-five minutes or until they are done. 

Making biscuits is the distraction you need. It is easier to spend your time being productive doing something than losing yourself to entire blocks of hours wondering why you perceive yourself to be broken and unloved and unequipped to move past your heart that you yourself feel you are responsible for breaking. Refining the recipe takes the entire holiday break. You do this every day, tweaking something, working at it as if your very life depends upon it. You think about your mother often and feel a pang of regret for never telling her you are queer, that you are into guys, and wondering if she would be proud of you. 

 

You melt the remaining half stick of butter and brush it liberally over your culmination making sure to use every last bit of it up once the biscuits are done and then let them bake for an additional five minutes so the tops get that much more golden brown. You’re excited. The entire apartment smells like the most beautiful thing in the world. You wait another five minutes still as they sit perched on a rack, just enough for them to cool a bit before pulling one from the batch from the seams. You tear a corner with your fingers and toss the buttery cloud into your waiting mouth, nodding your approval to no one but yourself. Your work paid off.  They are magnificent. 

You notice something happens. It comes out of nowhere. And just like that, as unexpected as good news and so much better than bad, you find something meaningful in yourself. It’s there with you behind a dark blue apron. Shaped by your own hands in a clear glass bowl with ice cold buttermilk, Costco butter, sugar, salt and White Lily flour. It’s profound. Pure. You are practically overwhelmed at the realization. The kindness you refuse yourself emerges and this time you don’t fight it. You hold your head a little higher. You made this happen. You did this. You let the burgeoning smile crack through, breaking the scowl, dislodging it from your face. It was right there inside you the whole time; the certainty, the fact, the reality, that you are and always were, enough.

You look forward to getting back to your routine and standing at the front of the classroom, and working with students. Classes resume soon and the holiday break is coming to a close. It’s colder still and your father sends you money and tells you in your brief Christmas Day phone call that he misses and loves you and to buy a proper coat. You take him at his word, and with the leftover money you also purchase a scarf. It’s made of cashmere and it takes a while to get used to something that hugs and winds around your neck without feeling like you’re suffocating. You get there, finding comfort, the scarf so ridiculously soft that it blows your mind. As soft as the tender biscuits you pull from a square cake pan and slather with butter, a healthy pinch of imported flaky sea salt, and ample amounts of translucent amber honey. Honey that is very nearly the same color as your new scarf. 

 

Biscuits

Ingredients:

2  1/3 cups White Lily self-rising flour

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 stick unsalted butter, divided; one half placed in freezer for 15 min.

1 cup ice cold buttermilk

1 cup all-purpose flour

Directions: 

1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Butter an 8” cake pan or cast-iron skillet.

2. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, and salt. Grate the half stick of frozen butter into the flour and gently toss with your fingers to coat evenly. With a wooden spoon or spurtle, stir in buttermilk to combine. The dough will be quite wet. 

3. Place the all-purpose flour in a shallow dish or pie plate. With a half cup measure, scoop evenly sized balls of dough into the flour. Toss each ball gently with floured hands from one hand to the other. shaking off excess flour. Place each floured dough ball into prepared pan, nestling each biscuit right next to the other so that they touch.

4. Bake until lightly browned, about 25 minutes. Melt the remaining butter and brush the tops of the biscuits liberally. Bake another 5 minutes, until nicely browned. Let rest for 5 more minutes, then serve immediately with your finest jams, preserves, or honey.

 

image: Aaron Burch


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