The Taste of Nostalgia

For Thanksgiving this year my wife and I drove from Seattle to Portland to spend a few days with her godparents.  Even though we were switching one major Pacific Northwest metropolis for another, and despite my wife’s godparents having ties to the Midwest and Colorado, I felt the need for one of our additions to the meal to have the fingerprints of my childhood in North Carolina and West Virginia all over it:  homemade biscuits.

Because of my upbringing in rural North Carolina, it would be safe to say that biscuits are a familiar food source to me.  Whether it was biscuits and gravy, biscuits on the buffet or as a bread option at any respectable restaurant, biscuit sandwiches for sale at my High School during morning break, or the almost “manna-from-Heaven” biscuits of Bojangles, you rarely had to go far when you developed the itch that only a good biscuit could scratch.

Even after saying all of that though, none of these delicious examples are what I think of when I hear the word “biscuit.”  Instead, my mind immediately goes to 72 acres of rolling West Virginia hills, a farm-house built by my great-grandparents, and an old wood-burning oven in the corner of a kitchen that has fed at least 5 generations.  It was that kitchen and that wood-burning oven that produced my earliest memories of biscuits made fresh every morning by my great-aunt Lucille.

Emma Lucille Upton was born before the world fell into war the first time, as was my grandpa Haven, and as my mom says, they were born “somewhere in the middle” of 11 children—all of which were born in the house.  Lucille never married, never owned a car that I’m aware of, and other than a couple of years where she worked a few towns over, she never moved away from the old homestead.  She was a steady and relatively quiet presence throughout my mom and aunt’s childhoods, and became a bit of a second grandmother on my mom’s side to my brother and me.  Despite her quiet nature, she openly and deeply loved her family, with her most visible and consistent show of love to my brother and me being a green plastic container full of fresh rice krispy treats, and a metal container of biscuits that would appear every morning.

But the memories conjured up by the taste, smell, or mention of a good biscuit doesn’t stop there.  See, to say that visiting my grandparents’ house was a step back in time would be a rather large understatement (as if the mention of a wood-burning oven to cook on and in wasn’t enough of a tip-off).  In addition to the oven, the house was without indoor plumbing until early in my childhood, and the rooms were heated by wood-burning stoves with vents in the ceiling that would be opened to heat the rooms upstairs.  As a result, cold mornings before the stoves could be stoked and trips to the old outhouse were relatively frequent occurrences.  I would often sleep with my socks on, or at the very least under the covers with me, so that they were readily accessible when it was time to get out from underneath the warmth of the quilts made by my grandmother.  Our days would consist of exploring the woods or the old sheds around the house, watching for deer or turkeys to run through the side field, or taking long naps on the front porch swing where refreshing breezes would often blow on even the hottest days.

It was in this context that my first exposure to making biscuits happened.  Lucille would wake up much earlier than anyone else to stoke the wood stoves in the main rooms as well as in the kitchen oven, and then would move to the task of making the biscuits for the day in a small back-room off of the kitchen.  I’ve never been much of a morning person, but on those mornings at the farm as a young child I would often get up hours earlier than normal in order to watch Lucille cook and offer to help.  By that point Lucille was years past the need for a recipe or even exact measuring instruments, often just pouring ingredients out entirely by sight.  I can vividly remember the speed at which she worked, the sweet smell of the fresh dough, and the worn-smooth-with-use handles on the flour sifter and rolling-pin.  The results were just as methodical:  biscuits of the exact same size, density, and taste every time, and always enough to last through all three meals and side snacks in between.

As the years rolled by, things changed around the house:  my grandpa passed away in 1990, an electric oven and stove were purchased, the wood-burning stoves in the rooms were replaced by gas-run heaters, and the ability to sleep all morning that comes in the early teen years took the place of those early mornings spent watching and talking with Lucille.  But the biscuits never changed.

Eventually, as is the case with all of us at some point in our lives, Lucille became too weak to continue to care for herself.  Being only her and my grandmother in the house, Lucille moved to an assisted living center about 30 minutes away.  She passed away a few years later, and was laid to rest at a small cemetery a mile or so from the house she spent almost her entire life in.

I’m 29 now, I’ve been married for a year and a half, and live 3000 miles away from those 72 acres in West Virginia.  All 11 of the siblings that included my grandpa and Lucille have passed on, as has my grandmother, and the old house hasn’t been lived in for several years.  But I often go back there, if only for a split-second, when I remember what it was like to wake up to the smell of a handmade quilt, the penetrating warmth of a wood-stove, the gentle rocking of an old green porch-swing, or the sound of my grandmother beginning sentences with, “like ole sayin’ is.”  Often it’s biscuits that take me there–either the making of them (which I’ve grown to love over the last few years), or the eating of them.  Who knows, maybe one day I’ll wake up early to make biscuits with my kids or grandkids, and I can tell them about that house in West Virginia and their great-great-aunt named Lucille.

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2 responses to “The Taste of Nostalgia”

  1. Mom says :

    Well done, son….it brought a tear to my eyes….and man, were those good biscuits! Thanks for writing this.

  2. Becky says :

    Oh, Baby Alex, you made me cry, but I wouldn’t have missed those biscuits for anything in this world. They are the standard by which I judge all biscuits, and while mine come close they will never be quite as good. Thank you so much for sharing this with any and all.

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