It is 1873, outside house number 124 on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. An ex-slave woman walks around the corner of her house, carrying her stockings in her hand, her feet wet from the river. Another former slave is waiting for her. It is 18 years since Sethe has seen Paul D, and catastrophic events have taken place since she escaped from the plantation where they worked together. But she invites him in and begins to make a meal of Southern biscuits.
These biscuits are central to the first chapter of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a story of slavery and the sacrifices – or crimes – one might commit to gain freedom.
For our non-US readers, these are not biscuits as we know them (i.e. crunchy and to be dunked in tea). The Southern biscuit should be soft, buttery, flaky and fluffy, delicious just out of the oven and spread lavishly with homemade jam. According to one source, they originated in scones brought over to the New World by emigrants from Britain in the sixteenth century. As the settlers moved south and a different range of ingredients became more easily available (softer flour, buttermilk, soda) the scone morphed into the biscuit (see this article for more details). As with Irish soda farls (discussed in my earlier post on Michael McLaverty) this bread-like food became popular because yeast was expensive. Soda recipes were the perfect cheap and quick alternative to yeast-leavened bread.
Morrison’s description of Sethe’s quintessentially Southern biscuit-making certainly contributes to her depiction of a particular cultural identity within the novel. It is also extremely tactile. Sethe uses no implements as she measures and mixes the ingredients, instead using her hand as a cup to gauge the quantities. The freedom to feel, both in an emotional and a physical sense, is something Sethe relishes after leaving the slave plantation. She works the dough – minimally, in order to prevent it becoming heavy – while talking about the past with Paul D. The shaping of the dough for the oven is interspersed with Sethe’s memory of abuse at the plantation. At the same time as we read about a woman baking one of the most stereotypical Southern foods, we find out about the oppression which was endemic on pre-emancipation plantations. Throughout the novel the past invades the present, coming back to haunt the characters as they hunger for freedom. Although they are legally free, they remain trapped by their memories of slavery.
Hunger and desire in various forms also pervade Beloved. A commentator on Morrison’s novels has explained that ‘food and hunger … are used to mark and define relationships, and they often mediate or inform politics of race’ (Lynn Marie Houston, The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia, p. 167). Some characters long simply for food and security, for a relationship with someone they can rely on. On the plantation, Sethe hungers for liberation from the animalistic identity her owner has projected on to her. The slave-owner’s nephews want something else, and Morrison does not shy away from depicting their hideous attack on Sethe. The mysterious figure of Beloved longs for Sethe’s attention and love, whilst Denver, Sethe’s daughter, wants the same from Beloved. In the enigmatic ‘slave ship’ section towards the end of the novel, the slaves incarcerated below deck long for nothing but the release of death. In writing the novel Morrison herself hungered for the exposure of a history which, in 1986, was still underrepresented within American culture.
Morrison’s accomplishment lies in the masterful way she brings together all these characters, with their various desires, and tells the story of several decades of US history. The result is an utterly compelling narrative which looks back only to seek a way to move forward to a more equal nation.
Within this enigmatic novel events and emotions are subject to multiple interpretations. And so we are left with few certainties. One of these is that food is at the heart of community and family life. Another is that Southern biscuits are delicious. Sethe’s daughter eats them with jam, enjoying the burst of steam as she pulls the biscuits open. These tantalising treats also feature in To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Look Homeward, Angel (Tom Wolfe), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou) and The Help (Kathryn Stockett). Although these books are very different, they share a common interest in Southern US culture and all remind us that biscuits are wonderful. We had a bit of help with this recipe from Natalie, a friend from North Carolina – so it is authentic! It is also extremely easy, so if you are new to bread/scone making, this is a good place to start.
3 cups OR 360g plain flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 OR 175g cup butter
1 cup OR 235ml buttermilk (You can make your own buttermilk by adding 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to normal milk)
- Mix the dry ingredients and rub in the butter. Add the milk and knead to a dough. It is important not to overwork this dough, so try not to handle it too much!
- Roll the dough until it is 1/4 inch thick. Cut into approximately 12 circles using a 2.5 inch circular cutter. Alternatively, just shape into round balls.
- Cook on a metal tray in an oven preheated to 450 degrees Fahrenheit (230 degrees Celsius) for 10 – 15 minutes, or until risen and golden brown.
- Serve and eat immediately with butter and jam!
Acknowledgements: Natalie Goodison
Natalie Osipova, ‘Biscuits and Scones Share Tender Secrets’, NY Times, 25 February 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/26/dining/biscuits-and-scones-share-tender-secrets.html?_r=0
Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu, ed., The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003)
Toni Morrison, Beloved (London: Vintage, 2007)