The ABCs of Bread and Biscuits

WheN I was growing up in the 1920s on a prairie farm in central Texas, the word ''bread'' always meant biscuits. Today, bread means what we called ''light bread.'' Curious about this terminology, I consulted Merriam-Webster's unabridged dictionary. Here I read that ''In the Southern states bread made with yeast is commonly called light bread and biscuits, made with baking powder, is called bread.''

Before the end of the 1920s, our light bread, and not biscuits, was called bread. But looking back, I am convinced that no other bread measured up to the goodness of biscuits.

My family enjoyed them for every breakfast and almost regularly for dinner and supper. Sometimes we would have corn bread for a special dish, such as turnip greens or stew.

My mother began many a meal by mixing flour with certain ingredients by hand. She worked the dough on a breadboard with flour, rolled it out, and cut nice fat wafers. When she pulled a pan of brown biscuits out of the wood-stove oven, how my mouth would water!

Usually, there was a pie pan to collect extras biscuits, especially if homemade sausage or cured ham were in season. Meats or not, nothing tasted better in the early morning than a hot biscuit split open and given a generous helping of fresh butter.

But biscuits rarely became leftovers, so I didn't mind two or three being consigned to the breadbox. Later Mamma might halve them, add butter, sugar, and a touch of cinnamon for toasting. These delectable morsels were our prairie sweet rolls.

Since biscuits had constant appeal, they served as the essential part of my school lunch. Whether they contained meats, jellies, or peanut butter, Mamma wrapped them in yesterday's newspaper. I recall the pleasant get- togethers with classmates at noon recess when we sat on the school ground to spread out our lunches. I liked to taste the variety of food, but I knew it wouldn't be as good as Mamma's.

Sizes and tastes of biscuits varied radically. One of my classmate's biscuits tasted like soda, and I asked Mamma why. She explained that his mother probably used soda and buttermilk instead of baking powder and milk. The only unfavorable aspect of our joint spread was rushing through it in order to play baseball or marbles.

When I was working in the field, hoeing cotton or topping cane heads for seed, I would take time out for a snack at the house. A biscuit and a slice of onion made it possible to resume labor with renewed energy.

Light bread began appearing on our menu when Papa and I went to the county seat in the wagon for pieces of lumber. The business transacted, we took the customary stroll around the square where we met friends for a chat. About midday we paused in front of a small bakery, not because of its sign -- ''Loaves that made your mother quit baking'' -- but because of wonderful aromas wafting onto the sidewalk. I was overjoyed when Papa bought a loaf to take home.

Shortly after we left the city limits, our stomachs started to growl furiously. It was past dinner time, and we were 12 miles from home. There was only one thing to do, eat some light bread. And so we did: the whole loaf.

We told Mamma about eating the bread, and she thought it very funny and laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks. Nevertheless, she forgave us for being greedy and promised to make light bread every now and then.

She got a start of yeast from a neighbor. I remember seeing the frothy rounded mass in a fruit jar. The bread was praised, but we knew it would hardly suffice as a steady diet. Two brown loaves set out to cool, however, were an invitation to ask for a crusty heel. With butter and strawberry preserves, this refreshment would have been fit for a finicky gourmand. When fresh, light bread was acceptable for dinner. But for breakfast? Never. It failed miserably as toast. Thus, the odds of light bread replacing biscuits were small indeed.

A common bread for pioneers was hoe cake, so called because dough was placed on a hoe blade and baked over hot coals in the fireplace. In preparing a quick meal for supper, Mamma made hoe cakes using biscuit dough. The plump tortilla-sized cakes satisfied the appetite, and the cook received no complaints.

We bought little bakery bread before the 1920s. The small business in town succumbed to a large city bakery that put its products in county-wide grocery stores. It seemed that Sunday visitors expected to see bakery bread on our table, and Mamma would not disappoint them.

But I still have biscuits. My wife makes them -- only on Sunday mornings. Yet what a glorious way to begin a new week.

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