How to Make Biscuits and Gravy
Sara Lynn Hess
This Sunday I will try to make biscuits and gravy. I know already that I won’t do it right. The right way is the way my grandmother did it—in a big heavy iron skillet, weighed down with butter and tangled chunks of dried beef coated in flour and salt. Lots of salt. For a recipe with so few ingredients, proportion really matters, and I can never seem to get it right despite having watched it being made hundreds of times.
Growing up, I spent most Sunday mornings at my grandmother’s house in “the hollow.” “The hollow,” which she and my dad actually pronounced “holler,” was not a hollow at all, rather a straight flat plain. But my father’s side of the family was from the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, and there people lived in hollers.
The house itself was little more than a shack. I’m not sure who built it and when, but it was just a couple bedrooms, a living room with navy blue carpet, and a kitchen with white counter tops and a slanted cracked brown linoleum floor. The kitchen is where we spent most of our time because my grandmother (who I called “Nan”) made it her mission to feed us from the moment we walked through the door.
You could come any time of day and Nan would feed you, but breakfast time on Sundays was the real event. It was never planned in advance but my family—my aunts, uncles, and cousins—would all show up at different times, coming and going as we pleased, squeezing into the seats around Nan’s kitchen table.
If my Uncle Jack was there, he would rest with his potbelly sticking out from Nan’s wooden rocking chair and cackle out from underneath his white whiskers. He was the family clown. If my more reserved and handsome Uncle Cut was there with his young, beautiful wife, he’d mostly talk about work. Nan would always compliment my appetite—“That’s good, Suzy Lou; eat as much as you want.”
Nan never knew how many people were coming for breakfast on Sundays, but there was always enough food. When you walked in the door there were already piles of crispy bacon on the table, the first round of biscuits was out of the oven, and homemade blackberry jelly was at the ready. The butter and the dried beef were in the background, crackling against the iron, waiting to be cooled in a bath of white flour and milk.
My mom, eager to match her mother-in-law’s culinary skill, attempted to recreate my grandmother’s breakfast on one occasion. Ambitious, as she was with everything, she even made the biscuits from scratch (Nan bought the pre-made ones in the tubes that popped). Mom was visibly disappointed when my sisters and I complained that the biscuits were dry and the gravy was not salty enough. Nan had a southern touch that my Mom’s Yankee soul could not imitate, or so it seemed.
In the summer, Nan would set a couple of white plastic lawn chairs out in the front yard, and when she wasn’t cooking she would spend most of the day out there. When I was around 15 or so, I remember sitting out in the front yard with her, asking about her move to Pennsylvania from the South when she was a little girl during the Great Depression. She shut her eyes and frowned, shaking her head. “I’ll tell you,” she said, her Southern accent still very much intact. “The worst type of sickness is homesickness. I hope you never feel that, Suzy Lou.”
In my mind, this seemed like a funny thing to say, absurd even, as “homesickness” paled in comparison to my mom’s recent cancer diagnosis. This was the sickness that hung over my head for the next two years until my mother died from it the summer before my senior year of high school.
While my mom was in hospice care, in a hospital bed looking out across the cornfields that were growing high in the late summer, I sometimes went to go and see Nan down the road. She would give me a piece of angel food cake or a slice of coconut cream pie and look at me very seriously with her milky gray eyes and say, “Now, don’t listen to the doctors. They don’t know anything. The only person who knows your time is God.”
When it finally was my mom’s time, Nan said with her eyes closed, nodding her head, “I’ve lost two husbands, and I’ve never felt pain like this before, Suzy Lou. Oh, this just breaks my heart.”
It broke my dad’s too, which was surprising to me because I didn’t know people that mean and grumpy had hearts to break. I couldn’t remember him being that nice to my mom growing up. But then I saw that someone who was already miserable could indeed have his heart broken and become even more mean and miserable. So when my acceptance letter came from Wellesley College the following March, I breathed a sigh of relief. My escape was in sight.
During my last summer at home before college, and only a year after my mother died, I became very aware that my grandmother, who was in her eighties, would also die at some point, probably soon, and that her food was an important part of her legacy: butterscotch pies, peach and blackberry jelly, fried chicken, coleslaw, large elbow noodles smothered in a flour cream sauce, cornbread and beans, ham and potato soup, and of course biscuits and gravy.
With the inevitable in mind, I asked Nan if she would show me how to cook. I wanted to write down her recipes. I didn’t say it at the time, but I thought that if I at least had Nan’s recipes I would be able to preserve a bit of her. I could make biscuits and gravy on a Sunday morning, and while she wouldn’t actually be there, part of her would remain. The whole family wouldn’t have to go around missing both Nan and her cooking if I could make a record of the latter.
Nan agreed and told me to come out to the house the same day, because she and my Aunt Sis were about to make some pies. When I got there, Sis and Nan were already in the kitchen laying out the pie pans and the rolling pins. Sis was probably in her mid to late sixties by then, and I thought she and Nan looked like they could be sisters. They were both bigger women, not fat but tall and “big boned.” They both wore floral prints that they’d probably picked up on one of their many yard sale trips. Despite having grown up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Sis, the second oldest out of five and my grandmother’s only daughter, spoke with the same Southern accent as Nan.
I took a seat at the kitchen table with a yellow note pad and pen. Ready to record, I watched Nan and Sis go to work. While I was a very good student, it quickly became clear that this lesson would be impossible to follow.
Without attempting to explain what she was doing, Nan would get a big heaping cup of flour and dump it in the mix. “Did you just add flour? How much?” I asked. “About this much,” Nan said, with her long, slender, weathered finger pointing into the bowl. “How much is that? How many cups?” Without answering, Nan turned away in search of her next ingredient. She was a little hard of hearing, I thought. Or else she had heard me and didn’t know how to answer, so she said nothing at all. Aunt Sis let out one of her pleasant, quiet giggles and I realized it was the latter option.
Nan had no idea how much of anything was going into the pie. She behaved as though she was just making it up as she went along—like she would spot shortening on the shelf and think, “Hmm… that’ll taste good in the crust.” Eventually I just gave up on trying to record things and helped Nan and Sis any way I could. I would’ve been more insistent, but it was clear that the two of them had a rhythm for how they did things, and I didn’t want to break what I could see even then was a special mother and daughter tradition. I thought I would try again some time when I had Nan all to myself.
While I was away, I called Nan from Boston at least once a month and I saw her at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and for the last time at Easter. We sat in her kitchen around lunchtime. I had arrived too late for breakfast. The biscuits and gravy were gone. Nan tried to ply me with food nonetheless but I wasn’t hungry. This disarmed her.
I told her that I would be going to Nicaragua during the coming summer to help in the elementary schools there. “Oh my lans, I just worry so much about you goin’ over there,” she said. “We have plenty of problems here already. You don’t need to go over there.”
What Nan meant was not discouragement. She meant that she didn’t need to hear about poor kids in Nicaragua because she had grown up a poor kid in America, and she knew that there were plenty of other poor kids in America still and didn’t believe that I needed to go rush off to help others when my (our) pot was still black.
And Nan was worried. For a woman who had never stepped foot on a plane, had never traveled outside of the east coast, the thought of sending a grandchild to another country, poor or rich, made her anxious and hurt, made her close her eyes and nod her head, her cheek cradled in her palm. Her heart held a lot of loss already.
In an odd sort of way, I had always known that Nan was a fragile presence in my life. When I was a little girl, sometimes Nan would babysit me overnight. I dreaded these occasions because even when I was very small I knew that she was old and I was worried that she would die in her sleep, that I would try to nudge her awake in the morning to go and make biscuits and gravy and she wouldn’t move. I was scared that I would discover, in the middle of the night, that she wasn’t breathing anymore, and that I was alone in her little house, which I always thought was haunted because it was flimsy and it creaked and howled in the wind.
Nan didn’t die sleeping in her bed though. She probably died before she went back to bed. I’m not sure how long Aunt Sis had been doing it, but while I was away at college Sis called Nan every morning to make sure that she was ok. One morning, Nan didn’t answer. It wasn’t the first time this happened. Sometimes Nan was outside fooling around in the yard or she was in the bathroom. But this time Sis called my dad, who lived closer to Nan than she did, and told him that their mother wasn’t answering the phone and she knew that there was something wrong.
My dad went out to check on Nan, and when she didn’t come to the door he walked around to her living room window. There he saw her sitting on the couch with a Bible open in her lap. “It just looked like she was sleeping,” he said later, choking on his words, tears in his eyes, “but I just knew.” He broke through the window and found that he was right—he knew.
Nan dying became another excuse for my dad to feel bad for himself. He ping-ponged between anger and sadness, as he always had, but now the extremes were stronger and made it so my sisters and I both hated him and feared what might happen if he was left alone. He had lost his wife and mother in less than two years. And then Nan forgot to leave him anything.
My grandmother didn’t have a lot of stuff. In fact, my mom once told me that Nan lived well below the poverty line. But she did have a few things that she cherished, and while she was alive she made sure that everyone knew what they were to get when she died. Sis was supposed to get her china cupboard. This beautiful old glass cupboard sat in the living room, and every time my sisters and I would get to wrestling or fighting in front of it, Nan would say, “Now be careful, you’re gonna break the china cupboard!” My Uncle Jack got her old car that barely ran, other uncles got other pieces of furniture. I got a set of china dishes that Nan stored in the basement. She made sure I got them before she died. “These are like brand new, Suzy Lou. The doctor’s wife gave them to me and I ain’t never used them.” I never bothered to ask which doctor and where.
But when it came to my dad, for one reason or another, my grandmother forgot to leave him anything. This may have been because he had plenty. While he came from the same poverty as my grandmother and his siblings, he’d done well for himself. Maybe Nan just didn’t think that my dad would be so choked up he would need a sentimental object to hold on to. In any case, my dad felt slighted, not materially but emotionally.
In fact, he had felt slighted his entire life by everyone, including the church. While I was growing up, there was a period where he went to church with my mom, my sisters, and me every Sunday. But my mom said that before I was born my dad used to get angry at her for going to church and taking my older sister with her. He would get angry silently, in the way we all knew that he got angry. At first he would seem in a good mood, in an extra good mood even. And then he would grow silent, more and more silent. And finally, if you asked him what was wrong, he would either deny it but walk off, making it clear that there was indeed something the matter, or he would explode and yell things that made no sense.
Mom said, sort of speculatively, that she thought Dad’s problems with the church came from an incident when he was young. His father had been an alcoholic and at one point, Nan, who had always worked, went to their church to ask for help. The preacher turned her away, wouldn’t give her a dime because he said that her husband, my grandfather, would drink it all away. And because of that, according to my mom, my dad had his doubts about the church.
I wouldn’t have known this story if my mom hadn’t told me. My dad never talks about his dad. All I know is that my dad carries around a twenty-dollar bill in his wallet that was the last money his dad ever gave to him. It was to run an errand. My grandfather died unexpectedly when he was in his fifties. He was a lumberjack and he was working in the woods with my Uncle Bob when a tree fell on him. Rumor has it that Uncle Bob didn’t talk for a week after the accident happened.
Nan never talked about her first husband either. I don’t know if that’s because remembering him and the way he died is painful, or if remembering him and the way he lived is painful, or if this all happened so long ago that it wasn’t as present in Nan’s mind anymore.
Overall, despite having had a hard life, Nan hardly ever talked about the things that pained her. She kept busy. She cooked. She made embroidered pillows on her sewing machine (the last time I talked to her she told me that she was trying to sew thirty by the spring). She went yard-saling with Aunt Sis. She took long walks to visit her neighbors. She watched her grandkids.
Still, even as a little kid, I must have been able to spot some sort of sadness in Nan. One day, when I was only five or six, I was sitting at her kitchen table eating beans and cornbread and I said, “Nan, are you lonely here?”
“What’d you say, Suzy Lou?”
“Are you lonely?” I said, louder and clear.
“I can’t understand ya.”
“Are you lonely, Nan?” (practically shouting.)
“I can’t understand what you’re a-saying. Now finish your cornbread.”
I suddenly realized that Nan must have heard me but she didn’t want to answer. And part of me felt ashamed for having asked about something I was apparently supposed to leave alone. It was like the first time I said the word “shit,” without realizing of course that it was a “bad” word. I wasn’t supposed to ask Nan how she felt about spending a good chunk of her day alone in her little house.
After she died, and when my dad didn’t get anything else from Nan, he bought her house and the ground on which it sat. When he first bought it, he had all sorts of ideas of knocking down the house and building a new apartment building and whatever else. It didn’t take long for him to begin to feel guilty about the whole thing though.
He didn’t explain why he felt guilty. He bought it for a fair price and there was nothing wrong with that, but he said he felt like he had something that wasn’t meant for him. So he sold the house and the ground at cost to the little Mennonite church next door.
This was the same church whose congregation invited our whole family for a meal after Nan died, and the same one where my sisters and I had to go to vacation bible school every summer. We weren’t Mennonite, but my Mom had grown up in a Mennonite family and I think part of her felt good about giving us a taste of a very plain church for just one week every summer. My little sister, always the rebel, didn’t like it very much and would often run away from her class at play time and end up sitting with Nan on her white plastic chairs in the front yard.
As I said, Nan’s house was of little value beyond the sentimental. Once everything had been cleared out, the Mennonite church knocked it down and expanded their gravel stone parking lot.
He never did it while Nan was alive, but now my dad makes biscuits and gravy on Sunday mornings when I’m home. They don’t taste quite like Nan’s, but they are pretty close. I’ve tried to get him to show me how to make them a couple of times, but he gets angry when I ask him questions. For him, it’s not a learning exercise but a questioning of his abilities; for me, it’s not worth the struggle.
Not so long ago, I hypothesized that Dad’s biscuits and gravy were so close to the real thing that they would be exactly like Nan’s if only he had her old iron skillet. I thoughtlessly asked him, “Whatever happened to Nan’s skillet?” “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened to any of her stuff,” he replied gruffly. “But she didn’t leave anything for me.”
Nan’s biscuits and gravy may be lost for good, but the memories are still there. In the summer, my nieces go the vacation bible school at the Mennonite church that used to sit next to Nan’s house. When I’m home, I drop them off there sometimes, parking my car on the gravel that used to be Nan’s blackberry bushes. I stand with them while they sing the opening “Come to Bible School” song that the church has sung since as long as I can remember. Some of the older church members recognize me. They come over and say, “My, these girls look just like you and your sisters.” Sometimes I think the church members there must think of Nan. That they must realize the parking lot where we exchange these niceties is more than just gravel to me.
Sometimes, out of the blue, it dawns on me that while my nieces will never run away from bible school to sit with Nan in her front yard, or horse around in front of her china cupboard, jeopardizing its very existence, or get stuffed with her chocolate and candy, I can perfectly imagine them doing all these things. I can mentally copy and paste them into all my memories of that time, and it all feels so natural the way these memories spin through my mind. If someone were to come and tell me that they were real, that they had videotapes, that it was documented, Nan feeding my nieces spoonfuls of butter like she used to give me, I wouldn’t struggle to believe it.
While I still can’t say I’ve ever felt homesick in the way that Nan described, I guess these fabricated memories are symptomatic of another type of sick. The kind that longs not for a place but for a time that passed or perhaps never was. I’m not the only one that feels it of course. Every time I see Sis, she closes her eyes, shakes her head with her cheek in her palm and says, “Oh, I miss her so much.” Maybe this is what Nan really meant by homesick.
Sometimes, on a hot summer day, I drive past the parking lot where her house once stood and I imagine what it would be like if I just saw her sitting there in one of her white plastic chairs. She would be resting under the sun, staring out into the cornfields, or even better, there would be several cars parked out in front and Nan wouldn’t be out in the yard but in the kitchen pulling biscuits from the oven and mixing the gravy in her iron skillet. Everything in the right proportions.