Sunday, November 8, 2009

Measurement By Hand

From the time I was a child, my sister, parents and I took road trips from Michigan to visit with my dad’s relatives down in the Atlanta area. This was a trip we took two or three times a year. Come to think of it, my family and I did a lot of road trips and covered a most of the US. My sister and I looked forward to the Georgia trips the most because we had ten or more cousins in the same age range as us. It was like having extra brothers and sisters.

My dad is from a family of preachers so bringing our Sunday best was a must and attending my Uncle Marion's services was mandatory. No matter how many times we visited and sat in the church pews, we were always treated special afterall, we were ‘family’ of the reverend.
In the 1960’s and early 1970’s churches were not air conditioned as they are now. Before service began we would fight over the paper fans that were handed out. Church fans were a big deal to us younger folk. The fight was always over getting what we deemed as the prettiest fan. Some of the fans had beautiful photos of African Americans on them and were attached to what looked like big popsicle sticks.

A Mahalia Jackson church fan

One fan was beautifully photographed with a girl and boy sitting (what looked uncomfortably) on a pew. Their heads were tilted upwards as if they were hanging onto the preachers every word. The little girl had on an ensemble (a blue dress with a matching coat) and a beautiful straw hat the exact color as her ensemble. I could not find a picture of this fan on the internet but, this one was one my sister always chose . My cousins always picked fans with choir singers. I chose one that had a beautiful mother, father, sister and brother. I don’t know why but that was always my favorite. I would imagine this perfect looking family was my family.

Because my family and I were visiting my uncle’s church , there was always a special dinner held. The preparation of our visit involved the entire church. Almost every member was responsible for some task in preparation of the our visit. Church ladies young and old scrambled, planned and organized a huge potluck. For those ladies that were not chosen to be on the usher board, for the men and women that were too shy to sing or did not sing well enough to be in the choir; this was their moment to shine, by cooking the best meal for the Reverend and his family from up north. The dinners were held in the church basement during cooler months and outside during warmer months. Though the meal was set up as a smorgasbord, the Reverend’s table never had to serve themselves. Ladies in crisp white ruffled blouses and dark skirts and opaque stockings were there to serve and reserve us. They were quick and light on their feet and there was never an accident. The food was heaven. This was back in the days of true southern cooking. The kind of food cooked with bacon grease, lard, seasoned with pork and plenty of butter. The nation was not yet concerned about what this type of food could do to one’s cholesterol or arteries.

I can recall at almost every one of those dinners my mother asking one of the church ladies; “Could you find out for me who made that coconut cake please, whose biscuit recipe is that or what is in that barbeque sauce?” In a flash, the cook of whatever my mother had asked about would show up, ready to give her the recipe. My mom was always elated to receive these recipes. She always shared with me her plans to fix up this and that for my dad. For most of their marriage she would strive to cook as well as his family.

One of the frustrating things about the recipes given was that there were no true measurements. Back in those days (1960’s) folks that we knew down south never used measuring cups. Though my mother was born in Tennessee, she came up to Michigan after her mom died when she was five and was raised by my grandfather. My mom is more of a city girl that never learned to cook. It used to drive her crazy when one of the church ladies would say “that’s right baby, just take three handfuls of flour, that’s all you need”. Of course my mom’s product would never, ever turn out the way the church ladies had made it. We knew it was about the hands.

Velma’s Biscuits

When I was a young woman divorced and with children of my own; I began taking trips to Atlanta. Our first three or four trips were by air. The flight from Detroit (DTL) to ATL is only two hours. My son was only two our first trip. I didn't want to think about driving with a two year old for 11 or 12 hours. You understand I'm sure.

We always stayed at my Aunt Velma’s home (my dad’s baby sister). This was during the late 1980’s while my dad’s mom was living with Aunt Velma. We are all early birds and were at 6 AM. It was important for me to be up with them so I could catch up on the family news (gossip). Though my grandmother Bea was very old and stayed back in her room 80% of the day, somehow she knew everyone’s business. Sitting at that table with them, I would learn things that were going on with my relatives in Michigan from my folks down in Georgia. I mean, I was right in the in Michigan and sometimes didn't know what was going on with my family.

Bea insisted on having her coffee out of a percolator. This was how she’d always done it. You know the kind that you have to warm on the stove. This coffee was very, very strong and was not for the faint of heart. It was excellent coffee though. Coffee was always accompanied with bacon, sausage and Velma’s homemade biscuits. These biscuits were the best biscuits I had ever had in my life. Every year I would ask Aunt Velma for the recipe and every year I'd try my hand at it again. It was a really simple recipe too. Something like flour, buttermilk, lard, butter, salt and baking powder. I think that’s how I remember it. I could never make them like Velma; I mean they were not even close. Okay, they weren’t even edible. Mine were always rock hard and went right into the trash.
I could never get the recipe right because there were no measurements at least not what I viewed as measurements. Velma would tell me to put in a handful of flour, a little bit of lard, a three finger scoop of butter, buttermilk, a few dashes of baking powder and a pinch of salt.

Velma is a petite woman with small hands, I am not a petite woman and I have slender but long hands so the recipe never worked for me. Even to this day some 20 years or so later, my aunt doesn’t have a measuring cup in her house. She always said they were a waste of space and she never saw a reason for one. When she is in a teasing mood, she will poke fun at me and ask me to cook up some of those biscuits from the recipe she gave me. Very funny Velma.


I am not so much a biscuit cooker or eater but here is a recent recipe that I tried because I had someone over for brunch and I decided to try my hand at biscuits. It’s out of The Flavors of Bon Appétit 1999 cookbook. I’ve had this book for years and am just now getting around to the biscuit recipe.
These biscuits are very tasty. I would do this recipe again but next time I have to remember to have my dough rolled thicker so my biscuits would not be cut so thin. We put butter on them as soon as they came out of the oven.

Featherweight Buttermilk Biscuits

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup (1/2 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
¾ cup chilled buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450F. Sift first 6 ingredients into large bowl. Add butter and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add buttermilk and stir until dough forms.
Turn dough out onto floured surface; knead until smooth, about 8 minutes. Roll out dough to 1-inch thickness. Using 2-inch diameter cutter or cookie cutter, cut out biscuits. Gather scraps; roll out to 1-inch thickness and cut out additional biscuits.
Transfer biscuits to large ungreased baking sheet. Bake until golden, about 12 minutes. Serve warm. Makes about 12 biscuits.

Enjoy !


Carlene said...

I love this post. You have such a talent for writing! The family stories! And I've never even heard of those fans, so thank you.

And biscuits? I love them,too. Ooh, yes I do. Mine have also always come out rock hard, but you know what? I ate them anyway. Sad.

Camille said...

This is a wonderful post. I was lost in the story. I too missed the church fans coming up. The next time you come by, I'll have biscuits and tea for you.

Lupie said...

This post has brought back many memories!
When I was a little girl, in the 1960s, we lived in a three family house in NYC. There were the Bears(Jewish) on the first floor, us(Spanish) on the second floor and the Russells(African American)on the third floor.
I would spend many hours playing with Cathy Russell and hearing stories from her Dad and Mom who were a Jazz musicans who played with Louis Armstrong.
They were Baptists and I would go to church would them and often saw those fans.
The angel on the one was a picture I grew up with. I always had one in my room and now I collect them.
I have only seen them with white figures. I love the black figures on this one.
Thanks for the memories and the recipe.

Gale said...

Nice story.

Joansie said...

What a beautiful story! Thank you so much for sharing. Being from a much colder climate (Maine originally), we never had fans in church. I especially like the one of the angel looking over the little children. In school I used to sit on the edge of my seat to make room for "my guardian angel".

Sheila said...

Thank you for sharing a beautiful story, which brings back memories of my family. We would take road trips to Alabama and attend church service. Yes, mom still had a few fans from then.

cici said...

I remember those fans. I wish I still had them. Great post, You write so well. Thanks for taking us back.

urbanknitrix said...

Excellent post!!

I loved those fans as a kid. I would always look for the fans in the pew. I felt so grown up to have the fans and I LOVED having dinner at church because those ladies could seriously cook!

Cat said...

This is a wonderful post. I'd forgotten all about those church fans. I wish I'd kept a few.

Ice Princess said...

Wonderful post :) will try those biscuits this week for dinner,

Anonymous said...


Knitgirlll06 said...

Late to the conversation but thank you so much for bringing a smile to my face remembering my childhood fight over the fan of my choice every week. Keep writing this was a fantastic piece.