Fork in the Road: Biscuit Bliss
Hankering for biscuits the way they used to be? Pull over at the Pit
Mud-streaked pickup trucks with rusted quarter panels jam the parking lot at the Biscuit Pit in Grenada, Mississippi, halfway between Jackson and the Tennessee line. The Roto-Rooter man is here. So are the president of the Poor House Water Association and, seemingly, every painter, contractor, and electrician in the county.
They lean against the flanks of their machines. They drink foam cups of coffee and bite into matchbox-size country ham biscuits. They debate, with vigor and forethought, the relative merits of the football recruiting classes for Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi.
Just south of downtown, across from Grenada High School—on a length of Highway 51 that’s lousy with payday lenders, pawnshops, fast-food drive-throughs, and dollar stores—this mansard-roofed combination of a gas station, a convenience store, and a counter-service restaurant is a beacon of small-town life in a town that appears to be short on beacons. Want to know who killed whom in a crime of passion, what city councilman is on the take, and whose grandson just threw a two-hitter in the local Dizzy Dean league? The codgers who gather at the Biscuit Pit to read day-old newspapers and smear grape jelly on their sausage biscuits will know. Want to learn where the crappie are biting on Grenada Lake, and what long-shank hook works best? The brogan-shod farmers eating biscuits stuffed with fried bologna and scrambled eggs have the answers.
Two generations ago, diminutive biscuits like these—bisque white, thin-lipped, cotton-crumbed—were morning constants at courthouse-square cafés and country stores. Now convenience stores and gas stations have replaced those old-guard purveyors. Yet the women who sift and stir and bake and serve at the Biscuit Pit endure. Through the decades, they’ve earned tenure, respect, and one too many forearm burns, sliding trays of biscuits in and out of hot ovens.
Earline Hall has worked a stainless-steel bowl at the Biscuit Pit for fifteen years, cutting a low-rent version of Crisco into a low-rent grade of flour, while stirring in buttermilk for rise and sweet milk for flavor. When she cuts that dough into rounds, Earline uses the same makeshift tool her mother, Irene Smith, used—a disemboweled tin can that once bobbed with green peas.
At Earline’s side, tending an oversize cast-iron skillet, scrambling eggs into fat curds, is Angie Bennett. She will soon celebrate her twentieth anniversary in this galley kitchen. Neither Angie nor Earline have anything on Shirley Ward. She’s a lifer. For twenty-five years, Shirley has worked a fry basket at the back of the kitchen, cooking pork tenderloins that emerge from the oil with a lacy crust that plays beautifully off the chalky-topped biscuits Earline pats and bakes. Like all the women who work for the Mims family, proprietors of the Biscuit Pit, she leverages humble ingredients and dowry recipes to craft transcendent breakfasts, dispensed across a high-top counter for a buck and change.
Over the last decade, the South has enjoyed a sort of biscuit renaissance. White-tablecloth chefs now serve them instead of baguettes. Fast-food operators now build their brands on biscuits-and-tots combos. But something has been lost in the gestation. Too many of these nouveau biscuits are behemoths, fat specimens with canted tops that recall margarine-goosed popovers. Too few are slender exemplars of the baking arts that rely on the long career and deft touch of ladies like Earline.
Must Eats: Three more places for old-school biscuits done right
Beacon Light Tea Room
Bon Aqua, TN
Imagine a dolled-up Cracker Barrel. That’s the feel. But the biscuits, cut with lard, are beautiful. And the preserves are made in-house. beaconlighttearoom.com
Book a night at this columned manse, in business since 1919, and you get a free breakfast of cat-head biscuits. Order them stuffed with aged country ham. beaumontinn.com
Open since 1951, this crimson-and-white shingled cottage serves throwbacks like streak o’ lean biscuits to college students and townies alike. 205-345-8239