This morning, I made biscuits like my grandmother did: with White Lily Flour, baking powder, butter, and milk. She made a well of flour, poured milk, patted the dough into a round with her hands, cut her biscuits with a juice glass or a mason jar. I loved watching her make them. I loved eating them. To really think about biscuits, you have to think about who makes them and who eats them.
To really think about biscuits, you also have to think about affordability. I wonder now why my grandmother used canned evaporated milk. Was it less expensive than fresh milk? Or just more practical to bake with the same milk my grandfather used as cream for his coffee?
Now, I most often make biscuits with unbleached whole wheat flour, baking powder, butter, Greek yogurt, and organic fat free milk. They’re healthful and hip. But this morning I made biscuits much like my grandmother did. Because I miss her. And because they’re really good. Many Southerners swear by White Lily Flour. But White Lily has been bleached to be whiter, a process that smacks of hegemony. It’s not much of a leap from “White Lily” to “lily white,” the notorious 19th and 20th c. Republican party campaigning to exclude people of color from politics. It’s not much of a leap to suspect the lightest flour of championing the lightest skin color.
I’m not the only one suspicious of the confluence of food and social purity. In White Bread: A Social History Of The Store-Bought Loaf, Aaron Bobrow-Strain details the food industry’s and food activists’ efforts to sell Americans on scientifically superior white bread – efforts that hinged on fears of immigrant bakers as much as contaminated food. Borrow-Strain explains, “food borne diseases were widely associated with eastern and southern Europeans, Mexicans, and other ‘dirty’ groups” (35). Eating what we now call artisanal breads, popular thinking went, was not as safe or satisfying as eating Wonderbread.
But back to biscuits. In White Bread, Bobrow-Strain gets at my confused nostalgia for my grandmother’s biscuits that were home made from store bought, processed ingredients:
At the start of the twenty-first century, a wave of neo-traditional food writers urged Americans to eschew anything “your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” If your great-grandmother wouldn’t have eaten it, they argued, it wasn’t real food. This rule of thumb raised a few complications: I’m pretty sure my great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized Ethiopian doro wat or Oaxacan huitlacochtle as anything a human would eat, and yet they’re two of my favorite foods. Neo-traditionalist’s dreams of “real” food have racial and nationalist undertones, it seems. More importantly, they ignore the complexities and ambiguities of early twentieth century Americans’ relation to food (29).
I find myself caught in those “complexities and ambiguities” with my biscuit making. I’m nostalgic for my grandmother’s biscuits. But nostalgia doesn’t make my grandmother’s kitchen a stage for exclusively local, whole foods. By the time my grandmother or even my great-grandmother began making biscuits, most Americans bought bread from the store.1 America liked white bread and refined white flour, too. The biscuits my grandmother made probably weren’t her grandmother’s biscuits. Her grandmother’s biscuits probably weren’t so light.
But they were lighter than cornbread. Per University of Texas Women’s Studies Professor Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt, late 19th and early 20th centuries women’s clubs campaigned for education and social services in the poverty-stricken South. There, one the aims of newly college educated, often middle class white women was to (re)teach the supposedly less fortunate to cook. Not traditionally regional or ethnic foods that Progressive Era women – encouraged by the advertising aims of an emergent food industry – thought unclean and immoral, but rather foods that were white. Like biscuits.
Serving biscuits rather than cornbread signaled a kind of social superiority. In A Mess Of Greens: Southern Gender And Southern Food, Engelhardt writes, “Biscuit baking demonstrated class consciousness, the ability to acquire specialized ingredients, racially coded leisure time for certain women, consumer-marketed equipment, and nationally standardized consumption. Cornbread, on the other hand, symbolized ignorance, disease, and poverty” (52). And color. In Engelhardt’s example, middle-class white women demonstrated biscuit making to poor white Southerners. But the South had long relied on the domestic labor of women of color for its cooking. Traditionally Southern cooking, regardless of the hands that did the cooking, suggested Appalachian ignorance and all the characteristics that white America attributed to black Americans. So activists encouraged a whiter menu to make for more upstanding citizens and “better” communities. In an attempt to cleanse the soul, white America vilified soul food.
I’m thankful for my grandmother, who taught me to make and love biscuits. And cornbread. Despite an astoundingly powerful food industry and the industry of food activists, my family ate biscuits but also cornbread and hush puppies and grits. Long before recent foodie trends, my grandmother’s faithfulness to the darker corn meal might have seemed, to popular America, a poor choice for her family’s moral and social trajectory. While my grandmother baked with White Lily Flour and even sometimes served what her husband called “loaf bread” – appropriately store bought, conveniently presliced, uniformly white bread served straight from the food safety insuring plastic bag – like her political and consumer cultural climate told her to, she also resisted the rhetoric and cooked with love and soul.
1 “By 1930, 90 percent of the country’s most important staple food was baked outside the home by men in increasingly distant factories” (Bobrow-Strain 24).