Biscuits on Beech Mountain

Summer Shortcakes

by Laura Silber

Summer Shortcakes

Elizabeth Cecil

In a little wooden house nestled deep in a hollow on the banks of Laurel Creek, on Beech Mountain, North Carolina, I learned how to make a proper pan of biscuits.
It was the summer of 1989. Through a series of random events, the kind which frequently happen to restless, unmoored 21-year-olds, I had fled Chicago and was living in a comically small trailer in the cool shade of the hollow that summer. The churning waters of the wide creek crashed loudly past my dented front door. In the woods around the hollow, giant rhododendrons formed shady tunnels above which impossibly tall pines rose into the sky. Several days a week I would travel down the mountain and drive forty-five minutes into town to mash beans and shred chicken at a Mexican restaurant to earn some cash. But otherwise I was learning to quilt, can, garden, dry and store food, identify wild edibles, and pay attention to life. It was an ad hoc education that I patched together for myself, much of it spent sitting on the front porches or in the kitchens of the older people who had spent their lives on the mountain.
My greatest teacher from that time was Anna Presnell, whose family had farmed Beech Mountain for hundreds of years. I was the same age as her granddaughters, and she absorbed me into her large extended family. Anna was an excellent cook and baker who carried in her head recipes which had been passed down through many generations without ever being written down. She taught me to cook by instinct and sense memory, using local and wild ingredients, and it is to the countless hours spent in her kitchen that I owe much of my later career as a chef.
One of the first things she taught me to make was biscuits, which I fell in love with. In the mornings, Anna usually “dropped” them by the spoonful onto a baking sheet or greased pan. Dropping the dough allows the heavy pockmarking created by the activated baking powder and soda to remain present on the biscuit’s surface, resulting in a crispy and heavily crevassed exterior and an airy interior. It is quick and easy and gets your breakfast into the oven without the trouble of flouring your counter. If it was later in the day, she made the “rolled” version, where the dough is gently patted or rolled intoa thick circle and then cut into rounds with a metal biscuit cutter or a drinking glass whose rim has been dusted with flour. Rolling or patting the dough compacts it slightly and homogenizes the surface. The resulting baked biscuit is evenly textured and softly browned on the outside and tender on the inside with a slightly more bread-like interior than its dropped cousin.
In the South, and in the mountains especially, biscuits are a traditional mealtime staple. I frequently heard someone’s cooking get judged by how well they could or couldn’t turn out a “decent” biscuit. What I loved most about them was that they served as a vehicle for sweet or savory without altering the basic dough recipe at all. I ate them hot out of the oven for breakfast with my coffee, accompanied by butter and drizzled sorghum molasses, or topped with homemade pork sausage gravy and sliced tomato from the garden. For dessert they would be covered with fresh whipped cream and wild mountain huckleberries to make shortcakes.
Anna passed away fifteen years ago, and it’s been almost a decade since I last returned to Beech Mountain, but every time I cut shortening into flour with my fingers I am reminded of the feel of the wooden floorboards under my bare feet and the crash of the creek outside her kitchen window, the smells of hot coffee and browning flour mixing with the fragrance of rhododendrons and pine. One of the most satisfying baking moments after our household went gluten-free was the day I turned out my first good batch of gluten-free biscuits, baked in the cast iron skillet I’d bought for two dollars off the back of a pick-up truck in North Carolina and kept with me all these years. My son ate three biscuits right out of the pan, still warm from the oven and slathered with butter, a look of sheer delight on his face.
I think Anna would have proclaimed my efforts quite decent, and I hope she would have been proud.