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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"


by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Remember the biscuit scene in John Wayne’s “McLintock”?

Chill Wills, playing rancher George Washington McLintock’s right hand man in the 1963 Western comedy, says to McLintock (Wayne): “…You wanna see sumthin’ that came directly from heaven?”

Wills hands Wayne a golden-topped biscuit. The Duke looks at it for a moment before cautiously taking a bite.

“Where’d you get this?” he asks.

“That boy’s mamma baked ‘em,” Wills replies, pointing to a strapping farm boy (Patrick Wayne) and his beautiful mother. “You thinkin’ the same thing I’m thinkin’?”

Wills introduces McLintock to the widow Louise Warren, played by Yvonne de Carlo. “Ma’am, he has a few choice things to say about your biscuits.”

Wayne looks uncomfortable, lost for words. Finally he blurts: “Well…they’re great!” And the lady who is not only pretty but can make heavenly biscuits is McLintock’s new cook.

Good biscuits have that kind of power. A pioneer in what is now Tarrant County once pacified some potentially hostile Indians by, in the Texas vernacular, cooking them up a mess of what must have been darn tasty biscuits. Their bellies full, the Indians had no bone to pick with a man who could cook like that.

Back then flour stood in short supply and came at a high price. Most early-day Texans got by quite well on corn bread, with flour-made biscuits a rare treat. When flour eventually became more readily available biscuits became a Texas staple as well.

My grandmother, born in the spring of 1898, learned to cook before foods came in ready-to-mix boxes and long before ready-to-bake or ready-to-microwave dishes. Making biscuits to go with a meal (old Texans would eat biscuits with any meal, not just breakfast) came as easily to her as zapping instant macaroni and cheese is for my 13-year-old daughter.

Not only could Grandmother quickly put hot biscuits on the table, they tasted wonderful. Slathering them in real butter and covering them with honey, molasses or home-made pear preserves added to the pleasure – and calorie content – of her biscuits.

Alas, routinely making biscuits the old-fashioned way is as rare today as flour used to be. The art has been mostly relegated to recreational chuck wagon cooks and commercial cowboy breakfast operations.

Back when or now, cooking biscuits involves more than combining the ingredients and baking the result. As the “McLintock” scene suggests, good biscuits almost do seem divinely inspired.

The author of “On A Mexican Mustang Through Texas” devoted a paragraph to the art of biscuit making in his 1891 book.

“Either of us could prepare or mix the dough, put it in the skillet, put on the cover and set the skillet on the fire,” he wrote, “but there was never any certainty as to what the skillet would produce.”

Sometimes, he continued, “it would be a pudding, and at other times it would be a flour-and-water brick, hard enough to ruin the digestive organs of a camel.”

Their guide, on the other hand, always succeeded in making “splendid” biscuits. Not wanting to make him feel underappreciated, the two travelers allowed their guide to take over all the biscuit building, as they called it.

Texas had no more famous brand of flour than the product that came from the Burrus Mill and Elevator Co. of Fort Worth. While the company’s name may not resonate, its product did: Light Crust Flour. To help sell their product, the mill sponsored a Western swing band featuring one Bob Wills, later of “San Antonio Rose” fame. Company president was future Texas Gov. W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel.

A 48-page recipe booklet produced by the mill in the mid-1930s, with “practical recipes” tested and approved by Mrs. Leonore Standifer, featured four biscuit formulas: Dixie Yeast Biscuits, Perfect Baking Powder Biscuits, Rose Biscuits (regular old biscuits made with red food coloring) and Sour Mile Biscuits.

This is the Perfect Baking Powder recipe:

Scant cup sweet milk (translation: people called regular milk sweet milk to distinguish it from buttermilk)
2 cups Light Crust flour (sorry, the mill’s long since been corporately absorbed)
3 teaspoons baking powder (Calumet was the old-time standard)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons shortening (trans fats weren’t a factor in those days)

“Sift Light Crust flour, baking powder and salt together into mixing bowl, after sifting flour once before measuring.

“Push flour to sides of bowl, making a well in the center. Pour milk into well, put in the shortening, blend mile and shortening well together, adding all the flour. Blend thoroughly, but lightly. Put out on floured rolling board and fold over a few times to make smooth. Roll out to ½ inch in thickness, cut with small biscuit cutter and place in well greased shallow pans. Bake in quick over, 500 degrees, about five minutes.”

The booklet continued, “These biscuits made of Light Crust flour will be delightfully fluffy and white and deliciously flavored.”

Clearly, those biscuits must have been unlike those the late Texas writer Fred Gipson recalled from his early 20th century childhood. Some of the biscuits he remembered eating “squatted to rise and baked on the squat.”

As a youngster, Gipson and many other rural Texans in the early decades of the 1900s carried biscuit-and-bacon sandwiches to school each day. Their lunch box was a lard bucket with holes punched in the top.

Back before World War I, Hattie Hester and her cousin Ola Mae attended a small school at Rochester, in West Texas. Annoyed at their teacher for some reason, they decided to get revenge. They had no particular form of retaliation in mind until they spotted a dead frog in the road as they walked to school. “We decided to make a sandwich with a biscuit from our lunch,” Hattie later recalled. “We put the dead frog-and-biscuit sandwich on his desk. If he ever found out who did it, we didn’t know it.”

That would have been one biscuit that did not look like something from heaven.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" November 16, 2007 column
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