Two butter knives, a large glass bottle, and a drinking glass or jelly jar. That was all the special equipment I needed when I first learned to make biscuits some 20 years ago. I was a migrant fruit-picker, living with my family in a little trailer with a postage-stamp kitchen and only the bare minimum of cooking equipment.
I probably could have managed to find room for a rolling pin, a simple hand pastry blender, and a biscuit cutter - but in those days, owning and storing such items seemed an extravagance to me. Why bother with a rolling pin when a glass bottle would do as well? Who had room for a pastry blender when it was hard enough to find space for silverware?
I hadn't come to biscuits - or to fruit-picking - naturally. I'd grown up in a kosher household in Chicago where breakfast breads meant toast or bagels, not biscuits, and dinner breads were limited to rye bread or challah. Other than the packages of zwieback biscuits (good for teething babies) that my mother bought occasionally, or the biscuits mentioned in the Delta blues and folk songs I heard, my youth was devoid of biscuits.
But when I began picking fruit in the 1970s, I became aware of another way of thinking about bread - a biscuit culture. In Florida, where I picked oranges and grapefruit, biscuits held a place on every breakfast menu, along with grits. Biscuits were served either as an accompaniment for eggs or on their own, with cream gravy.
The biscuits were always homemade (none of that biscuit dough in a can, even in cafes that served coffee "whitener" instead of cream), and they were invariably good.
Biscuits were harder to find on menus in the West, where I picked cherries, pears, and apples. When I did find them, they were often too heavy or doughy. But no matter. The people I met on the fruit run were from Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas - all reputable biscuit states.
They showed me how to make biscuits: cutting the shortening into the mixture of flour and baking powder just until the granules were the size of peas; pouring in enough buttermilk to make it moist but not soggy; kneading the dough briefly; then rolling it out in a thick layer and cutting it into circles with a jelly jar or drinking glass that had been dipped in flour.
If you'd told any of these hardy cooks that they needed a marble rolling pin, a food processor, or a copper biscuit-cutter, they'd have laughed in your face. Biscuits were unpretentious, like the people who ate them.
Still, I had a problem following their instructions. Lard, for example. It was the fat of choice for delicious biscuits, but I just couldn't use it. My upbringing, combined with my vegetarian sympathies (inconsistent though they were), made me averse to it. I would have to try something else.
So I researched cookbooks and tested recipes, giving the butter knives, bottle, and jelly jar a workout. I made one biscuit dough with yeast, another ("gourmet" version) with cream, and yet another with grated cheese. In my health-food phase I tried whole-wheat flour. None of the recipes were quite right.
Then, finally, I realized the answer was right in front of me. It was simple, yet elegant. I replaced the lard with butter, kept the buttermilk and the white flour, made sure the baking powder was fresh - and voila.
The biscuits were light and flaky, yet substantial. The buttery flavor and layers of dough reminded me of a humbler version of the croissant, American style. They were as good with soup as they were with scrambled eggs or an omelet.
Split and topped with strawberries and whipped cream, they made a fine dessert. You could eat them anytime with honey or jam, and call it a treat.
It's been more than a decade since I picked fruit, and my kitchen now has room for a rolling pin, a pastry blender, and a large cookie cutter for cutting biscuits. I continue to make the recipe often, and something about the simplicity of it reminds me of what a person can do with a few ingredients and a little creativity.
I still value that biscuit state of mind.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor