The Biscuit Cutter
Half awake, I stared at the empty bread basket on the kitchen counter. A craving for hot biscuits, butter, and molasses came sliding over me. In minutes I assembled buttermilk from the refrigerator; flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt from my cabinet; and the canola oil bottle beside the cook top while the oven temperature climbed to 425 degrees. Warmth from the oven would feel good on this cool October morning. The coffee maker burped and spewed the final drops of my morning caffeine boost into the carafe.
Not being a frequent biscuit maker, I deliberately measured ingredients, lightly stirred the flour mixture into a well of milk and canola oil, counted ten folds on a floured cutting board, then reached into my jumble of tools to find a biscuit cutter. In the back corner of the drawer, my hand closed over the family heirloom, a two-inch rusty tin baby formula can, dented on the cutting edge from being battered about for half a century by a heavier can opener, potato masher, rolling pin, or any tool competing for space.
When my hand pressed down with a twist to cut circles of soft white dough, a rush of warm memories covered me like air from the open oven door, and I felt my mother’s presence. Her hand was the first to make biscuits with this cutter. She had traveled six hundred miles from Southeast Missouri to Northern Iowa to help us, arriving in a snowstorm that heralded the coldest winter in many years. I was snowbound in a Catholic hospital, sore and miserable trying to nurse my baby, blessed daily by a priest, treated kindly by nurses and my obstetrician, Dr. Storck, who wore hand-painted neckties displaying the long legged bird. My mother’s phone calls encouraged me that things would be better. She laughed when I remarked, “I will be glad when things return to normal.” She knew my life was changed forever, and there was no such thing as normal.
Allen looked so much like my older brothers in infancy, that my Mom melted into tender memory every time she held her first grandchild--our blond, blue-eyed boy. She coached me, cared for me, and kept our household humming by cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes.
One morning after my mother had prepared a bottle of supplemental formula, she turned the empty can back and forth in her hand. It opened with a tiny key which rolled up a ribbon of tin just below the lid, leaving a sharp edged shallow can. “This would be just the right size for a biscuit cutter,” she said, and with the sharp point on a can opener punched five tiny holes around the top to release air pressure that would otherwise hold the dough in a vacuum. Her creativity born of necessity would survive fifty years in my kitchen drawer.
My mother was the oldest of nine children. Her father was a barber. They were poor. A new baby came every two years and my grandmother’s health was not good. My mother learned to cook corn meal mush and feed her younger brothers and sisters when she was a little girl. They lived on a rocky, hillside farm, had a milk cow and a big garden.
Cooking became her main chore, creating tasty meals of vegetables and the fish and wild game her uncles provided. Her family had this saying, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without."
During World War I, when neither good quality white flour nor sugar was available for home-baked bread, she perfected a recipe using molasses, buttermilk, and whole wheat flour. My children named it Grandma’s Brown Bread and when we visited they went straight to the bread, butter and jam station on her kitchen table. There was always an extra loaf to take home. Her house smelled of vanilla, date pecan bars, and homemade bread.
Her hands were strong and square with plump fingers. I can close my eyes and see the motions of her running a curved forefinger around the mixing bowl of cake batter or cornbread, across the bottom of the bowl, then a sidewise swipe that cleaned every smidgen of foodstuff into the baking pan.
In small ways I hope I leave to my children the heritage of my mother’s creativity, the eye for value in ordinary things, her common sense and frugality. I thoughtfully hold a rusty tin biscuit cutter in my hand and munch hot bread smeared with butter and molasses on a cool October morning.
Lou Carter lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and belongs to the Amen Southern Revelation Sisterhood Writing Group, so named by Judy Lee Green. She writes memoir, essays, humor, and an occasional poem. Her hobbies are photography; playing hammer dulcimer, her new 38-string harp, and piano; world travel; and reading. Her greatest joy is her family of three children, six grandchildren, and her husband with whom she has shared 56 years of marriage.