I’ve never been to the South. And I have to admit, I’m intimidated by the mystique of that sultry land of cotton and tobacco, where people talk slowly and eat black-eyed peas and grits, and the rednecks roam with a proud authority that makes our rednecks seem so junior varsity.
Then there’s Pink Neck. She grew up in El Dorado, pronounced “Eldor-ay-da,” which is just south of Smackover, in southern Arkansas. Pink Neck’s family lives in Smackover, where her Nanny makes legendary biscuits and gravy.
Talking to Pink Neck, I sensed that this might be my opportunity to pierce the Southern mystique. While not the most complex meal of the region, to me, biscuits and gravy epitomize the Southern culinary landscape.
We set up a teleconference station on Pink Neck’s front porch, and called Smackover. First we talked to Nanny, whose sweet drawl lowered my blood pressure a few notches.
I asked Nanny where she learned to make biscuits, but she didn’t seem to understand the question, as if she had always known how to make them. And she never said the word “biscuits.” She said “biscuit,” as if “biscuit” were its own plural. Finally she offered, “I watched my mother all my growing-up years. We had biscuit every day.”
The best flour for biscuit, according to Nanny, is Lily White flour. Something in the processing, she says, allows Lily White to make the lightest and fluffiest biscuit. You can’t get Lily White in stores west of the Mississippi, but you can order it online.
Nanny’s voice was like sweet molasses on the phone. Nanny’s daughter Debbie, meanwhile, who is Pink Neck’s mom, was like a Dukes of Hazzard re-run.
“I’ve had several redneck moments,” Debbie admitted, “but I don’t have a 4-wheeler. You can’t be a redneck if you don’t have a 4-wheeler. I don’t care if you have a pickup truck with a gun rack and Skol stains down your face.”
“How’s Smackover these days?” I asked.
“It’s peaceful,” said Nanny.
Debbie said, “Smackover is the perfect place to live, because everything you need is within 15 minutes.”
“Everything you need?” I asked. “Like what?”
“Everything,” she said. “Liquor store, BBQ, fried catfish joint…I mean, if you’ve got a fried catfish joint within 15 minutes of home…you’re home.”
After this exchange of pleasantries, we got down to biscuit. Nanny gave me detailed instructions. Here’s what you need:
2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoons baking soda
4 “good” tablespoons shortening (a “good” tablespoon is a rounded one)
3/4 cup buttermilk
For the shortening, I used Crisco. I had thought about going to the Good Food Store in search of hippy natural shortening, but in the context of Southern cooking, that seemed like sacrilege. Pink Neck agreed. “It does something to Southern food when you try to make it healthy,” she said. “Besides,” she added, looking at the label, “Crisco has more Vitamin E than apple juice.”
Curious, I examined the label myself, and was surprised at the detailed warnings about the flammability of Crisco. Many beers later, we tried making a Crisco candle.
Note: Biscuits and gravy are normally served in the morning, but they can be eaten all day. If made during the evening, while drinking a beer, Pink Neck advises, “never put your cold beer on the stove top.”
Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Then mix in the shortening with your fingers or a pastry cutter. Then mix in the buttermilk. Roll or pound it flat (about 1/2 inch thick) on a floured counter or wax paper and press down with an upside-down drinking glass to cut the dough into circles. Put the circles on a greased baking dish, and bake at 450 until golden brown on top.
For the gravy, you need a 1:1 mixture of flour and bacon grease. We used 1/3 cup of each. First, add the bacon grease to the pan—ideally a cast iron skillet—on heat just a touch above medium. Then add the flour and start stirring with a wooden spoon. Make sure to keep rubbing the gravy off the bottom, so it never cakes. Meanwhile, DON’T FORGET TO CHECK THE BISCUITS. Soon, the gravy will start to brown and smell like popcorn. “At this point,” announced Pink Neck, “what we have here is roux, which is a base for a lot of Cajun food, like gumbo.” When the roux starts to thicken and get kind of brown and lumpy, turn down the heat a little, and whisk in water until it reaches the consistency of gravy. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve, cut the biscuits in half, and pour on a heavy amount of gravy. You can also crumble the bacon that you used to make the bacon grease, and sprinkle the bacon bits on top. For that taste of home, serve with fried catfish.