For 25 years in Georgia, I watched my mom make the same batch of six light, fluffy biscuits for breakfast almost every Sunday. Then I moved to New York, never to see a light, fluffy biscuit again. I arrived in the city in 2011, just in time for southern food to get trendy outside its region, and for three years, I bit into a series of artisanal hockey pucks, all advertised on menus as authentic southern buttermilk biscuits.
With every dense, dry, flat, scone-adjacent clump of carbohydrates, I became more distressed. I didn’t even realize biscuits could be bad, given how abundant good ones were in the South. Even my mom, a reluctant-at-best cook, made them every week without batting an eyelash. The recipe she used had been on my dad’s side of the family for at least three generations.
The more bad biscuits I ordered in New York, the clearer it became that there was only one way out of this problem if I ever wanted to have a decent Sunday breakfast again: I had to make the biscuits for myself. I did not anticipate the hurdles of chemistry and the American food-distribution system that stood in my way.
I asked my mom to email me the recipe, and it was three ingredients (self-rising flour, shortening, and buttermilk), mashed together with a fork. I’m not an accomplished baker, but I cook frequently, and this was the kind of recipe that had long been used by people without a lot of money, advanced kitchen tools, or fancy ingredients. Confident that I could pull it off, I marched right out and bought the ingredients. The result: biscuits that were just as terrible as all the other ones in New York. Not to be dramatic, but my failure destabilized my identity a little bit. What kind of southerner can’t make biscuits?