"The Rolling Pin"
Published in Dew on the Kudzu
Like many ladies from the South, my mother was a fabulous cook. Her specialties were crispy fried chicken, sautéed pork chops with greens, and tomatoes with okra; however, where she really excelled was baking. She made fruit pies mostly, peach and apple, and blackberry, whatever was in season and every kind of cookie you can imagine—peanut butter, sugar, and chocolate chip. I remember her elbow deep in flour, with the red ends of her rolling pin twirling.
Cleaning out “the drawer” this week, a place where everyone in the family puts things they don’t know what else to do with, I found mama’s rolling pin. She gave it to me just as her mother had given it to her. Finding it brought a smile to my face and a tug on my heart. It doesn’t look so special. It’s solid wood, 8 inches in diameter, smooth as glass, with fire engine red scuffed handles. It has no screws, just wooden dowels that stick out on the ends.
When mama gave it to me when I first set up house after college, she said, “You’ll need this when you start baking.”
Baking? I had just graduated from college and baking was the last thing on my mind. I plopped it in the kitchen drawer. I was a career woman and had little time for cooking much less baking. Then slowly, I started trying to cook some of mama’s southern dishes. I asked mama for her recipes and found out none of them were written down. She never used a recipe in her life.
If I asked how to prepare creamed chicken, she might say, “Put a little flour in a pot and add a smooch of butter. Cook it until it thickens. Then add chicken stock and a pinch of salt.”
Exasperated I would reply, “Mama, could you please be a little more specific? How much is ‘a little flour’? Is that a cup, a half cup? How much butter is a ‘smooch’? “
I asked for many recipes over the years, but the one I always asked for over and over was her biscuit recipe. She made golden brown biscuits with buttermilk that would melt in your mouth. I have never had a better biscuit. She would mix flour, salt, Crisco and buttermilk together in a bowl. Then she would roll biscuits out with her rolling pin and cut even round shapes. With a dollop of her homemade fig preserves, you could taste the warmth and richness of summer. As usual, no recipe was used. I watched her time and again, asking questions and trying to get it right. I adjusted all the measurements over and over—a little more buttermilk, a little less, more flour.
When I asked for advice, she would say, “Patricia, you’re trying too hard. Don’t work the dough too much. Use a fork to cut in the Crisco.”
I kept trying. I used self-rising flour, plain flour, different kinds of buttermilk. Once I even brought home a bag of White Lilly flour back to my home in California from Alabama. Maybe that was the secret. Mama swore by it. Even though I followed all her advice, my biscuits did not rise or were just plain not edible.
Once I got married and had children the rolling pin took on a new significance. My two little boys and I rolled sugar cookies at Christmas, decorating them with red and green sprinkles and chocolate chips. We cut smiling gingerbread men and added red candies for eyes and raisins for noses. Then I started to bake pies and cakes, just like mama. I even perfected a pecan pie that mama agreed was very good.
Mama is gone now, as is my grandmother. My children are grown and making lives for themselves. I don’t cook as much as I used to and the rolling pin is in the back of “the drawer” in my kitchen. Looking at it this week, I was instantly transported back to the South and reminded of all I love about it, not the least of which is my bond with the women of my family. I am reminded that I am a part of generation after generation of southern women who use baking as both an expression of love and a creative art, all at the same time, though I doubt they thought of it that way. Now if I could just learn to make mama’s biscuits.
Patricia Thomas grew up in a suburb of Montgomery , Alabama. She spent much of her childhood visiting relatives in some typical small towns of the south. Dr. Thomas received her Masters from Auburn University and her PhD from Texas A&M University. She has dedicated her life to teaching English at various Colleges and Universities in southern California and to her two sons. We are so pleased that Dr. Thomas is now sharing her wonderfully warm writings taken from her memories of the rural south.