A lot has been made of biscuits in Southern cuisine. So much so that acclaimed chef, author, and James Beard winner Nathalie Dupree and writer Cynthia Graubart wrote an entire cookbook about them titled Southern Biscuits. “There’s this myth that we’re all, particularly Southerners, supposed to be born carrying a biscuit bowl,” Graubart told City Paper back in 2011. So it was no surprise when Top Chef: Charleston showcased the Southern staple on Episode 2.
Dividing the contestants into two teams — veterans and rookies — the former went to Gullah expert Chef BJ Dennis’ house and the latter to biscuit maven Carrie Morey’s for lessons in traditional Lowcountry cooking. While the veterans got a masterclass from Dennis on the finer points of the flavors of the African diaspora, Morey schooled Top Chef rookies on how to make permanent slaw (a slaw that stays in the fridge permanently), pork chops, and, of course, biscuits.
Now if you’re not familiar, Morey is the brains behind the wildly successful Callie’s Biscuits brand and Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits take-out restaurants. The preeminent voice on biscuit baking in Charleston, Morey not only showed the rookies how to make biscuits, she let them in on her Mom’s secret ingredient — cream cheese. “She added doubled the fat,” she said.
But when it came time for the newbies to make their Family Meal Elimination Challenge — served to the likes of chefs Robert Stehling, Sean Brock, Kevin Johnson, Michelle Weaver, Frank Lee, Dennis, and, of course, Morey — the rookies served a feast with not one damn biscuit.
“I guess I didn’t inspire biscuits,” Morey said surprised.
“It is a glaring omission,” Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi added in the understatement of the episode.
Why? Because, as Morey explains, biscuits are more than just bread. For generations biscuits were the omnipresent staple that kept many poor, Southern families going, Morey’s included.
Morey says she learned how to make biscuits at the feet of her grandma. “She put her apron on at 7 a.m. and didn’t take it off until she went to bed,” says Morey of the granny’s homemaker habits. And she instilled in Morey an appreciation for the simple bread.
“From where I stand, growing up in Charleston, biscuits were made because they were a quick bread. We made them for breakfast, lunch, and they were reheated for supper,” she says. “They came in many forms. It wasn’t just breakfast bread or at the main meal which we called supper. They were great for leftovers and very versatile. And it was important in our family that they were always served hot. There was never a loaf of cold bread added to the table. They were always hot coming out of the oven.”
And more importantly, they were made every day because, for Morey’s grandma, they were an inexpensive way to keep her hard up family full.
“The one reason my grandma made them all the time is they were cheap. She didn’t use White Lily flour and best butter, she used whatever she had. She’d fry bacon, scrape it, and put it into an old coffee can, and then dig her hand into that coffee can to make them with whatever cheapest flour she found at the Doschers on Johns Island and whatever liquid, usually skim milk because that was the cheapest,” Morey adds. The reasoning was pinching pennies during and after the Depression was essential.
“My father told an incredible story this year at Thanksgiving. In high school at St. Johns, the school did a canned food collection,” Morey says. “A week into the holiday break Dad said someone showed up their family’s doorstep with a huge basket of the canned food — he realized the needy family was his.”
But, Morey adds, “There was so much love in that family that he wasn’t aware they were needy. They lived on whatever they could afford to have. I remember opening cans of spam with my grandma. Her food was so simple but she gave me such incredible memories. That’s where I get my love of food from.”
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