Bread #11: Cheddar Jalapeno Biscuits (follow link for recipe)
Nothing says comfort like biscuits beneath a bed of warm gravy or over a brisket stew or even all on it’s lonesome. There’s something about the way it splits into two buttery clouds of melt-in-your-mouth goodness that makes biscuits the ultimate pillow to rest your soul on.
I can tell you with great confidence that my soul rested happy on this biscuit derived from a Food and Wine recipe for Cheddar Jalapeno Biscuits which paired very well with the Brisket and Mushroom stew I made that day, also courtesy of Food and Wine. See evidence below:
Though biscuits seem like simple and comforting daily fare now, during the pre-Civil War era, southern biscuits were considered a delicacy consumed mainly by Southern Whites on Sundays and doled out by plantation owners to African-American slaves only on days deemed as special occasions or, in some instances, when slave owners wanted to avoid accepting the extreme physical and emotional suffering that resulted from their actions. Consider this devastating passage from the narrative of Marie E. Hervey as she recounts her parents’ experiences as former slaves:
“They sold him from his mother. They sold his mother and two children and kept him. He went into the house cryin’ and old mis’ gave him some biscuits and butter. You see, they didn’t give them biscuits then. That was the same a givin’ him candy. She said, ‘Old mis’ goin’ to give you some good biscuits and butter.’ He never did hear from his mother until after freedom.”
It wasn’t until after the Civil War during reconstruction that biscuits became a more commonplace addition to a southern meal, and especially within African-American food culture. Pre-Civil War, slaves were forced to eat the labor intensive beaten biscuit, a hard dense puck of bread that could be taken out to the field or ash cakes, a solid slab of cornmeal coated in ash that was a durable as it was unpalpable according to Fredrick Douglas.
Better access to wheat made biscuits more prevalent in the South and newfound freedom brought a budding culinary culture to the African-American community. Though economic hardship and continued discrimination still limited their reach to cheaper cuts of meat and produce they could grow in their own gardens, biscuits became a staple of, what’s now considered, soul food. The first biscuit cutter, in fact was invented by African-American shop owner Alexander P. Ashbourne in 1875 as he sought to refine the process of baking biscuits.
As the years drew on, biscuits continued to rise in prevalence and by the Civil Rights Movement, they became a prominent menu item featured at designated meeting places where prominent figures and supporters discussed strategies to further the civil liberties of African-Americans such as planning the next peaceful protest or organizing discussions with leaders in Washington. As stating by an article in the National Geographic:
Civil rights movement supporters would often house leaders and protesters, offering them a home-cooked meal of soul food upon their arrival. Biscuits were a standard item on Georgia Gilmore’s table. Gilmore, a cafeteria cook in Montgomery, AL lost her job after supporting the bus boycott in 1955. After losing her job, Dr. King encouraged her to open her own restaurant. Gilmore’s home basically became an underground supper club. She ended up feeding hundreds, if not thousands, of organizers from her home kitchen (Bloudoff-Indelicato)
One of the main meeting places was a back-door restaurant called Paschal’s, a soul food restaurant in Atlanta that’s still in business today. According to an NPR article on “How Food Helped Fuel the Civil Rights Movement”, Paschal’s was one of the few white table cloth restaurants open to Black patrons. The Paschal’s, in support of the civil rights movement, often offered meals for free to all those involved, people who often didn’t have enough money to eat elsewhere considering that their efforts were largely unpaid.
Paschal’s became the unofficial headquarters of the Civil Rights Movement, allowing some of the greatest civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, Ralph David Abernathy and Joseph Lowery to strategize over a delicious plate of fried chicken, catfish, fried green tomatoes, collards and, you guessed it, buttermilk biscuits.
To say that biscuits played a complicated role in a very difficult chapter of American History would be a gross understatement. From a product of the ruling class to a means of creating complacency to a staple of the civil rights movement, biscuits have occupied a great many regions in the valley between slavery and civil libery.
So, in respect to the complicated history of biscuits, I’m going to refrain on adding any more of my own words and instead, turn it over to those who’ve lived through this tumultuous time. Drawing from the narratives of former slaves and civil rights activists (all listed in the work cited section at the bottom of the page) I give you:
Biscuits in a Back-Door Restaurant: A Found Poem
I never seen a biscuit,
we weren’t allowed to look…
I seen a woman sold,
had her in a short dress and no sleeves
you could see her muscle
Folk don’t know what hard time is now
I had two boys. One got drowned.
The country was torn to pieces
The War brought freedom and starvation
I set on a log across a branch and wait.
One morning, the sun was so bright;
Boy run down there crying, said his mama was dead.
He never brought me no biscuits.
She was buried in a metal coffin.
Times running away with the white and black folks both.
They stop thinking.
Biscuits are being beaten
His mother beat biscuits with a paddle
I stood on a block and made biscuits with a spoon
I jerk a little nod and then I woke up,
a gnawing in my stomach.
There was a big light in the house
and father was working at the table.
I won’t say what I saw.
It was covert operation:
Putting sugar in shoes to sweet talk
then black shoes with soot and take a biscuit and rub over them;
Four freshman sit at Woodworth’s lunch counter
Waiting for coffee that ain’t never come
Waiting in jail cells
from jail to Paschel’s
a back door restaurant, the unofficial headquarters
their elbows on a white table cloth
sharing biscuits baptized in gravy
the crowds a cover for King
we eat, meet, plan, rest, strategize
we start to think
this all matters.
Bloudoff-Indelicato, Mollie. “4 Important Foods of America’s Civil Rights Movement.” National Geographic. <http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2016/02/04/4-important-foods-of-americas-civil-rights-movement/> Feb. 4, 2016
Covey, Herbert C., and Dwight Eisnach. What the slaves ate: recollections of African American foods and foodways from the slave narratives. ABC-CLIO, 2009.
Horry, Ben. “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.” Typewritten records prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project 38 (1936).
Shute, N. “Cooking Up Change: How Food Helped Fuel the Civil Rights Movement [Online], NPR.” (2012).
Witt, Doris. Black hunger: soul food and America. U of Minnesota Press, 2004.