Thursday, July 7, 2016

Biscuits as the most comforting food at five

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The two remaining biscuits after the feast.
As much as I love to cook, I don't have much time to play in the kitchen. I eat a lot of expedient, semi-prepared food. Indeed, in the present-day American grocery store, the simple foods like legumes, grains, fruits, dairy products, meats, and vegetables cling to an archipelago about the circumference of the store, within which rises a sea of factory-made and often sugar-laden food. The dinner I ate last night while watching the Season Three premiere of Tyrant comprised two packages of frozen food: Stouffer's lasagna and a "steamable bag" of rice with vegetables in it. Steamable bags are relatively new technology, so maybe a few of you don't know about them yet: they are plastic bags full of frozen veggies that you put unopened and face-down in your microwave. You run the oven on high for the prescribed amount of time, let the bag sit, then cut it open and find inside a wonderfully cooked and probably richly sauced vegetable—certainly not the healthiest way to eat a vegetable, but I've rationalized that it is better than no vegetable at all. I'm particularly fond of the Brussels sprouts in butter sauce and the creamed spinach, which is something I would never prepare myself, but I do love eating it.

Much later last night, when a craving for the comfort of biscuits strikes me, I'm a little surprised when I look up from the focus of my computer screen to see that it's 5 a.m. I am hungry, and I have just finished the shopping list spreadsheet for my brother—Thursday is shopping day, and in the afternoon he brings my mother and me groceries for the week. I work from a master list of possibilities, and generally whittle down to a minimal list of food and supplies that will keep bodies and souls together. One of the questions over which I spend time pondering—I admit it's a nice problem to have—is whether to include canned biscuits:

2Pillsbury Grands! Big Homestyle Buttermilk Biscuits8 CT$1.68$3.36Dairy along back wall

The very thought of hot succulent biscuits—one of the most primal of comfort foods—stimulates my appetite. As the in-house inventory clerk, I prefer to buy two of those cardboard tubes at a time, but that's hard to justify when there is a can still in the fridge. So I decide that, as soon as I finish the grocery list—in which I include two new cans of Pillsbury Grands! (why this exclamation mark?)—I will get up and make some biscuits. So when I get to the kitchen to begin laying out the few things I need, my mother is on her way to bed—she's turned off the television and the table light where she sits. I ask if she wants to have some biscuits with me, and the question is complicated by her dementia, but fortunately I have the cardboard biscuit tube in my hand.

"Do you want some?"

"Oh yes," she says pleased. I've secretly watched her eat biscuits. She relishes them, and that appreciation stems from having experienced Depression-era hunger in her childhood.

She goes back into the den, turns on the light and the television again, and sits to wait. I always have to wrestle with the tube of biscuits because they are wrapped tightly in the carboard container, but that too is a comfort because you know that they are, um, factory pure. The ingredients of biscuits are few and commonplace, so if a rudimentary kitchen can make only one thing, chances are that thing is scratch biscuits. Of course today most of the work for making biscuits is rolled up inside this can:

In the past few days we have smoked enough food for a lifetime—the inside of the microwave smells like a smokehouse—so I am careful to use my phone's timer to remember that I'm pre-heating the oven while I write, and to remember that I'm baking biscuits that should be done in fifteen short minutes. Somewhere in that space in time I lay out a biscuit prep station with peach & mango fruit spread and Land o' Lakes Butter Spread With Olive Oil, and while I'm waiting I also catch up on my kitchen chores.

The recipe book Ratio gives the essential scratch biscuit recipe as:
  • 3 parts flour
  • 1 part fat
  • 2 parts liquid
Contemporary purists use shortening like Crisco for the fat in its hydrogenated and often vegetarian essence, but in a rudimentary pioneer or Depression-era kitchen—really, biscuits reach all the way back to Roman, Greek, even Babylonian kitchens—there is a grease urn (no Keatsian ode here) where bacon drippings go. Consider for a moment West's Law of Culinary Simplicity:
The age of a recipe is inversely proportional to its simplicity.
That's why bread is such an ancient food, so what I am doing tonight continues a tradition dating back before history. Since the 19th century, the modern convenience of baking powder helps as leavening so I don't get just flat bread.  Preservation of food is another issue that refrigeration allows me to forget. Fermentation and drying are two ways to keep food—that's why the ancients drank so much wine: nothing kept, so except for ephemeral seasons of grape and other juices, it was all the way with the vino. If I pulverize seeds like wheat, they won't sprout and go bad on me (there was the occasional outbreak of ergot poisoning, but of course I can't eat flour, but if I add water and make a dough, then I can bake bread and eat to my heart's content.

Making any food from scratch imbues it with much more love than, say, microwaving a frozen lasagna. Bread in particular must be handled with bare hands dusted in flour, and that fills it with that much more love. It becomes comfort food, and that's why there's something so utterly charming about taking a break from writing blogs and podcasts at 5 in the morning for biscuits. Finally my timer goes off, and I prep two biscuits with butter and fruit spread and coffee from the Keurig for my mother. I make and eat my own biscuits while I finish my kitchen chores. Finally, with a second cup of coffee and a third biscuit—plain this time so I don't get butter & jelly on my desk—I rush back to the computer to write this blog that wrote itself while I was in the kitchen.

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Not much left of the biscuits. Fortunately more are on their way.