Country Cooking: Biscuits, Cornbread and Homemade Gravy

It's All Trew: Timeless farm fare of scratch-made biscuits, homemade gravy and cornbread have enduring appeal.

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Delbert Trew

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Amazingly, in all the volumes written about food and nutrition today, gravy is rarely mentioned. The recommended daily diet needed for good health doesn't include gravy, and the ladies' magazines packed with beautiful photos of well-prepared food rarely feature gravy. Maybe it's because homemade gravy has long been associated with hard times.

Many old-timers still refer to the Great Depression as "fat-back and water gravy times." Many a skinny chicken, scrawny hog, jack rabbit or piece of stringy beef was made palatable with a coating of thick homemade gravy. Some old-timers even thought gravy improved digestion.

Grandma Trew always made thick, dark gravy, as Grandpa didn't think pale gravy had any strength. She made it three times a day for more than 50 years. Uncle Nep Trew ate gravy over the top of everything on his plate. His favorite dessert was chocolate cake with homemade gravy on top. Aunt Mettie allowed as how she had made enough gravy in her marriage to float the battleship USS Texas.

A former ranch partner of my father's made gravy thinned with hot coffee. He also made red-eye gravy whenever we had cured ham. We didn't add salt, as the ham was salty enough already. It was thin but packed a flavorful wallop.

A young newlywed once asked my mother if she would teach his city-bred wife how to make good gravy. Mother wrote out the recipe and directions, and then walked the young bride through a couple of skillets of gravy making. As they left, the young man gave Mother a hug and whispered, "Thanks a million. I can eat anything no matter how bad it tastes if I can get enough gravy on it." Knowing how to make good gravy might have saved that marriage!

Biscuits filled the bill

What goes better with gravy than biscuits? My earliest memories of biscuits include climbing up a Hoosier cabinet, opening the top door, reaching into a syrup bucket and grasping a cold biscuit left over from breakfast. My first delicate maneuver was learning how to hollow out the center of a made-from-scratch biscuit for jelly or sugar without puncturing a hole that would allow a leak.

Who invented biscuits anyway? I wonder how many biscuits have been made since their origin. History tells of a "poor man's bread" produced by travelers who made a dent in the top of their sack of flour, poured in a cup of water and formed a ball of dough. When the dough was flattened, wrapped around a stick and baked over a campfire, the travelers enjoyed a piece of hot bread. Chuck wagon cooks often slept with their crock of sourdough starter, keeping the ingredients from freezing on cold nights.

My mother made beautiful average-size biscuits on a regular basis. Dad made his biscuits as big as coffee saucers and two inches tall. Grandma Trew made biscuits that could double as hockey pucks. No matter the size, consistency or quantity, the biscuits were always gone by bedtime.

Those biscuits were all made from scratch using flour, baking powder, soda, shortening, a pinch of salt and milk. The mixture was rolled flat, cut or formed and allowed to rise in a warm place, which usually left a mess in the kitchen. Even with accurate measuring, no two pans of biscuits seemed to turn out alike.

This old chore is now a thing of the past as we embrace progress. Today we welcome "whomp" biscuits to the kitchens of the world. Just remove the tube from the refrigerator, peel away the paper and whomp it against the counter top, and you have biscuits ready to bake.

Young brides and old bachelors can now take pride in baking bread. No more dirty pans or flour on the floor. Whether you are a scratch, sourdough or whomp biscuit fan, biscuits have made the world a much better place.

To each his own, when it comes to cornbread

Cornbread offers a variation on that theme. During a recent ranch gathering with neighbors and friends from New Mexico and Amarillo, Texas, we returned thanks and sat down to a meal of fresh baked cornbread and a pot of pinto beans with all the appropriate additives. A discussion about cornbread soon became heated, as each diner told of how his or her mama made cornbread.

"My mama's cornbread was so light, fluffy and white it was unbelievable," one said. "Ha!" replied another. "Might as well eat cake. My mama made coarse, yellow cornbread like it was intended to be. Wimpy cornbread was thrown out to the dogs." Still another voice chimed in. "My mama put sugar in her cornbread and it sure was tasty." That didn't fly with another of the group. "Yuck! We liked salt and black pepper on ours, and in big doses." Another described his mama's cornbread as "thick and heavy with brown crust on the bottom and golden crust on top, crunchy and not gummy."

Consistency came up next with the group equally divided on light-and-fluffly and heavy-and-coarse. Comments touched on fine-ground, coarse-ground and stone-ground cornmeal. All present condemned the ready-made, instant stuff that comes in a box. Shape even came into play, with convincing arguments made for round, square and rectangular pans. Everyone liked the little pieces baked in the shape of small ears of corn.

Accompaniments followed, with pinto beans in first place, milk or buttermilk next and black-eyed peas last. As expected, the New Mexicans like jalapeno peppers, onions and stuff the others had never heard of.

Two bits of information learned were of great value. First, never wash your cornbread pan with soap and water: Just wipe it out with a dry rag. The dry cleaning apparently prevents the bread from sticking and browning too quickly.

The second applies a new technique to cornbread consumption. Slice your serving of cornbread in half while it's hot. Insert a quarter-inch-thick pat of butter per two-inch square of surface area. Replace the top half, count to 25 slowly and then turn the serving upside down. Research has confirmed that this technique provides the best butter distribution.

If all the world's problems could be discussed in depth like cornbread was that day, I am sure some very creative solutions would be discovered.

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net