Better My Biscuit

A mother and daughter come together over a happy meal

By Cynthia Adams

Mama was a big reader, and we talked books until her end. Her bedroom was overtaken by John Grisham novels. Yet cookbooks and cooking became her favorite topics of conversation.

Digesting cookbooks is a distinct pleasure. Writer Ruth Reichl beguiled the most reluctant cooks with purring, perfect prose, that lured us into the kitchen.

Our family kitchen was a soul-killing level of ugliness, with appliances, counter tops and linoleum flooring all matching in a lurid avocado-green. The wall phone was the color of canned peas. Stark fluorescence meant none of that greenness could hide. Still, Mama failed to see the point of modern, sculptural kitchens — ones with cavernous fridges, sky lights, waterfall counters and commercial stoves “But nobody cooks!” she would splutter.

What Mama saw were hot ovens and years spent rolling out biscuit dough and making gravy.

Our kitchen was poorly equipped, given that she produced as much food as the equivalent of a small cafeteria: No double ovens nor toaster oven. No microwave, because, well, radiation. The fridge was small, requiring manual defrosting. When the dishwasher died, Dad refused to waste good money repairing it, claiming “we have plenty of dishwashers” — giving us daughters a hard stare.

Otherwise liberal, he was a chauvinist pig on the topic of women and cooking, once lamenting I would never marry unless I found a man who did not like to eat.

“Or find someone much older,” he advised. “A lot older. He won’t expect you to cook.”

Mama had married a man who did expect cooking. On rotation were dishes meant to sate hearty appetites. She made her version of spaghetti sauce, supplemented by glugs of catsup when low on tomato sauce (also deployed in meat loaves that bobbed in bubbling fat). She concocted vats of chow mein, a peculiar church cookbook interpretation no Asian person would recognize. Pot roasts, chicken and “stew beef” were tenderized in a pressure cooker.

Mostly, Mama fried fish, chicken and pork, seldom draining fat. On Saturday, Dad grilled marbled steaks, giving her a break. By the time Dad’s arteries shut down at age 61, Mama had already moved on, done with life as a short order cook. She later moved to a Cornelius townhouse nearer grandchildren, acquiring a galley kitchen painted a buttery yellow. At 91, Mama now survived on Boost, ice cream sandwiches and dainty cubes of Cheddar cheese impaled on toothpicks. We began bringing her McDonald’s biscuits over her protests. When my brothers visited, she still felt the urge to pull out the rolling pin and make biscuits. Mama grew so slight and weak, she sometimes fell backwards opening the oven. One visit, I mentioned that humorist Rick Bragg was in Athens, Georgia while I was working there, promoting “The Best Cook in the World,” honoring his own mother, Margaret.

Mama shot an arch look. “So, I know you don’t think I’m the best cook in the world,” she said, fishing. Clearing my throat, I recited her greatest hits: chocolate cake, ambrosia, corn soup and the McClellan family vegetable soup.

“You hate my biscuits,” she accused.

“I’m not a biscuit person, Mom,” I said — a rookie mistake.

“I’m not either,” she retorted testily, “but that didn’t stop me from getting up and making them for five children. Every. Single. Morning.”

Years ago, I blurted out my preference for — wait for it — toast.

“Your mother made canned biscuits, because real ones were too much trouble,” I ventured. But Mama was not in a fighting mood. Instead, she laughed over Bragg’s devotion to the cuisine of Possum Trot, Alabama.

“You know,” she confided, her voice quaking as if she was about to betray a state secret. “McDonald’s sausage biscuit is really not bad at all. I actually like them.”

Her eyes widened. And we collapsed into giggles as if this were easily the funniest joke in all the world.  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.

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