“David, if you want biscuits tomorrow morning, you’ll have to go to Hardee’s. I’ve quit cooking.”
When Mom told me that, I felt like I’d been hit in the head with a rolling pin.
Turns out, she’d recently had a couple of bad cooking experiences, leaving a burner or the oven on, and smartly, she decided it was time to hang up her apron. That decision also meant no more of her rhubarb pie.
Most anyone will tell you their mom is the greatest cook who ever lived. I wouldn’t go quite that far in describing my mom’s cooking, but when it comes to her biscuits and rhubarb pie, she had no peer. (Although we called it pie, her dish was more like rhubarb cobbler or dumplings).
Mom lived, mostly alone, for 10 years after Dad died. Once each month on a Friday afternoon, I traveled the three hours from Johnson City, Tennessee, where I lived at the time, to her home in Athens, Tennessee, for the weekend. Fueled by thoughts of Mom’s biscuits and rhubarb pie, I was probably guilty of traveling the interstate well beyond the speed limit.
What made Mom’s biscuits so good? In addition to taste, texture is vital for a good biscuit. Mom’s broke apart easily, without crumbling, which is especially important if you’re going to add a slice of country ham or some jelly or honey in the middle. My daughter Gina, also a big fan of her Granny’s biscuits, says they were, at the same time, both dense and fluffy. And they were, oh, so tender!
Years ago, I asked Mom the secret to her biscuits. I remember three things she told me: use White Lily flour, buttermilk, and don’t press too hard on the rolling pin or they’ll be tough.
And as to taste, Gina and I agree … indescribable!
After I’d left home, Mom and Dad moved over the mountains from Western North Carolina to Athens, Tennessee. One of Mom’s biggest disappointments there were temperatures too warm to grow rhubarb. So, for years, I took rhubarb to her from Johnson City, where it thrived. She filled the freezer and always had rhubarb pie when I visited.
After a few years of being gifted rhubarb by friends, I decided to grow my own. It’s best, after planting the crowns, to give the patch time to get well established by waiting until after the third year for the first harvest. I duly waited and then bragged to Mom that I’d be bringing her rhubarb I’d grown myself.
My patch was along a fence line just outside my lawn. While I was on vacation, a friend mowed my yard, and not being familiar with rhubarb, he thought it was a patch of weeds. He weed-whacked the stalks right to the ground.
Technically, rhubarb is a vegetable, but it’s most often cooked like a fruit in the U.S. So in a 1947 legal controversy over tariffs on rhubarb, a New York court declared it a fruit. Thus, while the tomato is a fruit masquerading as a vegetable, rhubarb is a vegetable posing as a fruit.
Either way, when Mom combined it with just the right amount of sugar, just the right amount of dough, a touch of cinnamon and whatever other ingredients she used, her pie had a heavenly more-ish taste.
When Mom and I are reunited in Heaven, I’m hoping she’ll greet me with a plate of biscuits in one hand and a dish of rhubarb pie in the other. In the meantime, Haywood County is fertile ground for growing rhubarb, so I’m starting me a patch. Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep the weed-whackers away.
Dave Hogan is a retired radio disc jockey. He lives in Lake Junaluska.