Over half-a-century old, this heirloom has cut about 500,000 biscuits.
My great-grandmother, Altha Mease, passed away in the early 2000s – but part of her legacy is still in my kitchen.
She was a small woman, but everyone who knew her would say that her stature did not impact her spitfire personality. Above all, she loved to cook for her family in the Henson Cove of North Carolina. From all the stories I’ve heard of her younger years, she was, indeed, a woman who knew how to feed her family.
Her family didn’t have much money, but they were wealthy in property. Most of what they ate was either grown or raised around them. My grandmother – Altha’s daughter – has told me stories of smoked ham hocks, snappy green beans, and freshly churned butter. But Altha’s biscuits were her specialty.
“She made fresh biscuits every morning,” my grandma told me. This led to my immediate follow up question: “Every morning? You never ate day-old biscuits?” To me, as an amateur baker who could only dream of following in these footsteps, baking two or three dozen biscuits each morning seems like a pipe dream.
Grandma told me that she and her four siblings would slather on fresh butter and sorghum molasses, made from sorghum they grew. There would be homemade jam, apple butter, pumpkin butter, and marmalade to pile onto their steaming biscuits.
“Your great-grandfather ate marmalade every day,” my grandma told me. “He called it his Vitamin C.”
My grandmother grew up on the purest Southern biscuit recipe around: homemade buttermilk, lard, and White Lily flour. This is almost the same recipe that she used making biscuits for me as a child...with the exception of swapping lard for pieced butter.
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“You have to have good buttermilk,” she says. “I drive all the way to Asheville to go to the creamery to get whole, full-fat buttermilk. None of that low-fat, skim buttermilk stuff.”
As a child visiting my grandmother in the Henson Cove, she would make these biscuits for me, too. White Lily flour was one of the ingredients she swore by. “You have to use White Lily,” my grandma would say as she gently rolled the dough. “That’s the secret to perfect biscuits.” She’d give me the biscuit cutter, and I’d cut out the rounds for the baking sheet. Sure enough, the biscuits would puff up their flaky layers and turn a golden brown color: the shining star of our breakfasts in the Cove.
It’s been 14 years since Great-Grandma Mease’s death, but a recent spring-cleaning in my grandma’s house led to a surprise phone call.
“Abigail, do you want this old biscuit cutter? I’ll save it for you if you do. I have a ton of them.” My answer to my grandmother was an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
A few weeks later, the over-50-year-old biscuit cutter made its way into my kitchen.
If you do the math on the biscuit cutter, taking into account that my great-grandmother made around 36 biscuits each day over the course of 40 years (with the age differences of my grandma’s siblings), that antique biscuit cutter has likely cut over half a million biscuits. And, now, it’s in my kitchen.
It’s a part of my great-grandmother’s legacy that I can hold on to. Now, as I’m following my grandma’s recipe and cutting out those flaky layers, it becomes a little more personal for me.