Thursday, July 05, 2007


Biscuits are the first not-in-a-wrapper-from-the-grocery bread that I remember. Surely my mother made biscuits when I was a little girl, but they don’t come to mind immediately. The ones that I remember first were made by my grandmother, Mama Cheatham, in Florence, Alabama. My mother, dad, and I (that’s our whole family) didn’t visit there often, but when we did, the first aroma wafting from Mama Cheatham’s kitchen every morning was the sweet, sweet smell of homemade biscuits. In that area of North Alabama, it wasn’t unusual to have the fragrance of fried chicken mingled with that of biscuits. Sounds strange, I know, but back in the ‘40s, it was common.

I never saw her actually make the dough . . . you know, sift the flour, add the shortening and milk. All I remember of the making process was that dear little lady reaching in to the ice box (that’s the old fashioned term for refrigerator for you youngsters), taking something out, rolling it out on a floured board, cutting very small circles of dough, putting them in the oven, and voila! melt-in-your-mouth biscuits appeared minutes later on a table laden with fried chicken, eggs, butter, jelly, and probably lots of other delectables that I can’t remember because that was more than fifty years ago.

My dad used to tell a funny story about him and his stepmother, my Mama Cheatham. Papa and Mama married after my dad’s mother died, not too many years later, I imagine. In any event, Daddy was a wild teenager at the time, I think the oldest of several children who now inhabited the home. He told me that many a morning, Mama Cheatham would go to his room, open the door, and announce to a sleepy teenager who had probably stayed out much too late the night before, “Arlie, get up! The biscuits are in the oven!” His reply, so he told me, was always, “That’s a helluva good place for them to be, Jack!” That’s what he called his stepmother, Jack. I think he probably dragged himself out of bed shortly thereafter because I can’t imagine anyone in his right mind missing those delicious biscuits!

The next biscuits I remember were the ones my mother made, but I don’t recall them until I was a teenager living in Pensacola. Maybe I just have a blot in my memory because I know she didn’t just learn how to make biscuits until that time. What comes immediately to mind from watching her make her delicious biscuits was seeing her pat out the dough fairly thin and then pour melted shortening over the flattened dough. Next, she’d fold the dough over itself, pat it a little more, and cut the biscuit circles with a juice glass, actually a small glass that probably had held pimiento cheese spread in an earlier life. And were they, too, delicious? You betcha! She never really taught me to make biscuits with a recipe or oral instructions. I just watched from time to time, and am I glad I did because when I was a newlywed, I learned to make biscuits from a friend, but she didn’t know the melted-shortening-fold-the-dough-over trick. By the way, I once asked Mother why she did that, and she said, “Why, don’t you know? That makes it so that you can open the biscuit to butter it!” I seldom questioned my mother, and this time was no exception.

When Frank and I married in 1961, we moved in to Kell’s Cottage, a rent-free house for ministerial students at Mississippi College. We both had jobs to support us while we went to school, Frank in construction and me as the Veteran’s Clerk in the Registrar’s Office at the college. While working there, I met a young woman who had been married a bit longer than I had, in fact, several years longer than I had. She was a cooker! And she knew how to make biscuits.

“It’s really easy,” Virginia said. “All you do is sift two cups of self-rising flour, add five tablespoons of Crisco, mix, and add one cup of milk. Stir it all together, roll out on a floured board, cut, and bake.” Sounded simple enough for me!
After trying several times, I realized that something was missing even though they came out well enough. They were absolutely edible, and my sweetheart was much impressed with my accomplishment. Then I remembered my mother’s trick: buttermilk (plus a little soda), melted shortening on the patted out dough, and the magical fold! Mmmm . . . now I had my mother’s biscuits, but I didn’t have to measure baking powder, salt, the always-needed-with-buttermilk baking soda because Virginia had introduced me to the wonders of self-rising flour!

In August 1961, Frank and I took our longed-for trip to Seattle, the trip during which I would meet my mother-in-law and father-in-law for the first time and during which Wendy was conceived. The former story may appear in another essay; the latter will probably never appear in print. Anyway, we borrowed my parents’ brand new Oldsmobile and headed west for my first trip to Seattle. While we were there, Grandma did lots of cooking. If I thought that biscuits were a Southern delicacy, I was wrong. Grandma made great biscuits, but I’m not so sure that hers were any better than mine. The wonderful thing was that she taught me how to make sweet biscuits! Oh, my goodness . . . I was in Heaven! They were scrumptious! Actually, I don’t think she taught me how to make them, as in giving me the ingredients and instructions. Once again, I just watched as she made the dough, rolled it out, spread soft butter on it, added brown sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkled chopped nuts on top. Then in amazement I stared as she rolled the dough up from the long side, cut the rolled-up dough, placed the spirals on a cookie sheet, popped them in the oven, and withdrew those delicious sweet biscuits. You need to know that my mother-in-law was a very frugal woman; therefore, I’m sure that she didn’t use nearly so much butter, brown sugar, nuts, and cinnamon as I do, but they were delicious anyway. I’m not even sure that she knew that I copied her those many years ago. The old saying “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” applies here because I’m always quick to tell everyone who eats my sweet biscuits the name of the dear lady who first made them. I’m sure that for Grandma those biscuits were a quick and economical way of feeding many mouths!

But that’s not the end of the Biscuit Evolution for me. Through the years, I have made them for our little family, usually for special occasions such as a leisurely Saturday morning or Christmas breakfast; however, now in 2007, they’re an every-Sunday-morning feast. A little bit of background is needed here . . .

We now live outside the village of Cerrillos in Northern New Mexico. Since there is no protestant church in our little town, Annie Whitney, our sweet Christian friend, organized a Bible Study for those of us who were interested in gathering each Sunday morning to study the Word together. Wendy volunteered Frank, her dad, to lead it; he accepted the opportunity after the Lord let him know that He intended for him to take the leadership position. For a while, we met in a local restaurant, where we all bought goodies for breakfast in appreciation to Joseph for letting us meet in his establishment. However, Joseph closed his business after we had been meeting there for several months. What were we to do? Where would we meet? What would we have for breakfast? Our daughter and son-in-law, Wendy and Todd, came to our rescue for the place. We’d meet at their house. But what about food? You guessed it. Sweet biscuits! I made them one morning, thinking that I’d come up with other breakfast goodies; however, they were such a hit, that I’ve been rising every Sunday morning in time to bake up a batch. One of our Bible Study members loves them so much and gives me so many compliments (sometimes threats about what will happen to me if I show up without them!) that I have re-named them. They are no longer sweet biscuits. They are now Glenn Biscuits, named for that quiet, always-faithful, God-loving man, Glenn Holleman. I doubt seriously that my biscuits will evolve much more.

I’m still making the old stand-by biscuits, though. After all, that’s one thing that I’ve always been able to bank on having our dear granddaughter eat. Corey’s not a big eater, but I can count on her eating her share of Grammy’s biscuits. I wish she could have tasted the ones Mama Cheatham made, though.

Monday, July 02, 2007


In The Santa Fe New Mexican each week, I read a gazillion letters that families write to loved ones who have died. That seems a little strange to me since I doubt very seriously that those departed folks read the paper.
So . . . on this fifteenth anniversary of Jay's death, I'm not writing to him. I'm just writing some thoughts that are going through this mom's mind as she thinks about her boy. What I plan to write will not be morbid meanderings, I hope, but rather some good memories that I'm cherishing today as I sit in my little messy office here in Cerrillos, NM. Feel free to make comments!

How I wish that Jay had been alive during the digital camera age! You think I have lots of pictures from the point-and-shoot-and-take-the-film-to-the-store-to-be-developed age. Can you imagine what I would have if I'd had my trusty little Sony while he was alive? I'd have to have an external hard drive just for pics of my boy! Anyway . . . the picture on this post is a digital shot of an old picture that Wendy took at Mardi Gras in Mobile one year, maybe in 1992, not long before Jay died. My memory's not that good! One of the last exact things that I remember Jay saying to me was at his last gig, one of the many at Yesterday's in Chattanooga. During the break after the first set, he came to sit with us, as he usually did . . . just for a minute before he started "working the crowd," his term for visiting with everyone. He said directly to me, "Mom, did you see that? I had the crowd right in my hands! You can't even imagine what that feels like!" And he was right. I couldn't imagine it. But I have a picture that shows him with the crowd right in his hands! That's my boy! Maybe you were there that night. Maybe he had you right in his hands!

Today, I'm thinking about all the great times we had following Jay and Velvet Melon around all over the Southeast and even as far as New York. I'm also reminiscing about how you Melonheads always welcomed us old folks at the gigs, how some of you guys would always ask me to dance during my favorite songs (I was a bit clumsy in the movements, I'm afraid), how the waitresses would meet me at the door to tell me that someone had just put a fresh pot of coffee on for me, how Jay would always find time to come over to Frank and me during one of the breaks just to talk to his mom and dad. You may not be aware of it, but many a Sunday evening at Coconut Bay or Chan's Bayside I'd sit and write lesson plans on cocktail napkins during the sets. And many a time, Jay would check just to be sure I wasn't grading papers. No chance of that! Can you imagine what my students would say when I returned the papers and they got a whiff of where I'd been grading? Ah! Those were the good old days!

I'm also thinking of all of you Melonheads who gathered at our house right after Jay died and sat on the floor of our family room with Wendy, going through snapshots for her to put on the collages that she made and that we exhibited at the visitation and funeral. We needed you, and I firmly believe that you needed us during that time. In fact, Frank and I think we remember that Melonheads in various numbers were with us in our home for several days, maybe even weeks, after Jay died. We grieved together. And that was a good thing! I remember hearing several Melonheads say at different times, "Well, God needed a new bass player in his band, and he surely did get one!" That observation was music to a mother's ears, I can assure you! Another specific thing that I remember coming from one of you, this time just a little bit after the funeral, when we were all gathered again in the family room, came from Jack Canavan, if I remember correctly. He said, "The only thing missing from Jay's funeral was having all the cars (126, by Andy Waltrip's count) circle Cordova Mall, yelling good-bye's to Jay. Wouldn't that have been fun? As they say, "Hindsight's 20/20," huh?

Writing about my boy is one of my passions, but I'll end right now. Just had to get some words and thoughts down on "paper" today. Someday I'll put together all of my ramblings, hoping that some of them make sense in retrospect. If you were among the folks at the Velvet Melon Reunion at Beth and Andy Waltrip's house on April 28, we loved seeing you and getting all those hugs. If you weren't there, we missed you. Thanks, Beth and Andy for hosting! And thanks, Wendy (our darlin' daughter), for loving all of us so much that you'd spend literally months getting us all together! I'm still working on the VELVET MELON Reunion blog, so check back soon. Eventually, I'll put lots of pictures on Snapfish and send links to all of you.

Enjoy the day, and remember funny stories about Jay!