Monday, October 23, 2006

Of Cathead

Preamble: For my friends in Great Britain, consult your English to American Dictionary and note that the term “biscuit,” as referred to in this post, conforms to the American definition. A terrapin is a yeast (dinner) roll in geezer-speak.

Due to a chronically issued directive from the powers that be, I started cooking at a very young age. I interpreted the statement, “If you don’t like what’s on the table, go make your own dinner” as a loophole in the contract of my indentured servitude. I don’t recall my age but I do remember pulling the kitchen drawers out for use as a stairway to access the upper level cabinets. That’s where the Folgers Coffee cans were kept, the ones filled with home rendered lard. Frying is always a good place to start. You can fry almost anything in lard and it will always be good.

My next target was the sourdough starter that my mother kept on the kitchen countertop. It was a thick broth of flour and water with an unmistakable sour twang. It was also a veritable bottomless pit of self-replicating yeast cells. The kitchen became a laboratory where I subjected those one-celled life forms to all manner of experimentation.

For me, the mysteries of piecrusts, terrapins and biscuits, were solved decades ago after an encounter with a sympathetic granny at a holiday get-together. I had previously attempted to squeeze the baking secrets out of a few grannies but had consistently come away with recipes that you could find on the back of any sack of flour. My inquiries were met with skepticism. Why did I want to know? This was when I became aware of one of the most well kept secrets in all of grannydom. At large gatherings, grannies do not cook for you, they cook “against” other grannies. Only after the suspicious matriarch was convinced of my sincerity would she break the code of silence. She complained that the younger generation could not care less for the wealth of kitchen expertise that had been passed down by their ancestors. I suggested that I could serve as a surrogate in the absence of the more traditional beneficiaries, the daughters and granddaughters.

I swore a blood oath not to divulge the information that I was about to receive to her competitors, those uppity in-laws and know-it-all upstarts in the “other” families. The few family members who were privy to her secrets were already well informed. Their successes and failures would be evident in the bowls and pans scraped clean by the hungry masses versus those that would be picked over and, in some cases, left relatively intact. Nothing could be more embarrassing at a family reunion than a basket of rolls left unmolested among a jumble of empty containers, a humiliation duly noted by those that mattered.

Now convinced of my commitment to the craft, she gave me a glimpse into a world enshrouded in mystery from ancient times. She took me to an unoccupied corner of the living room and spoke in a low voice. The grey haired woman kept a wary eye on the room as she handed over the keys to the kingdom. One by one, secrets were revealed, too many for me to remember. She agreed to provide more forbidden information at the upcoming holiday festivities in December. She didn't show up at the Christmas feast, I was told she was not well enough to attend. She did recover but my connection to her family abruptly ended with the demise of my relationship with her granddaughter. Nevertheless, the damage was done.

One by one, grannies, aunts, and other random kitchen queens felt the wrath of my newfound baking powers. I destroyed the mythical status of their rolls, biscuits and pies. I lorded my powers over them at reunions and holiday feasts. I conquered kitchen after kitchen until no granny in the land would risk sharing a countertop with me! Yeah right, in my dreams. Nobody but a granny can best another granny in the kitchen. I have successfully competed with an occasional apple pie or batch of terrapins, but no man is capable of matching the depth of knowledge held in the smallest forgotten corner of a typical granny’s head.

The granny factor notwithstanding, I have a handle on this bread thing with one glaring exception. My nemesis is, and always has been, the notoriously difficult to control “buttermilk cathead biscuit.” For those unfamiliar with the term “cathead biscuit,” consult your nearest geezer or google it. What you will find from geezers and google alike are endless opinions of what a cathead biscuit is. Everybody thinks their cathead is the quintessential cathead and all others are pretenders to the throne. That is what makes this elusive little jewel the touchstone of baking prowess. The objective is to reproduce the size, shape, texture, taste, heart, and soul of a cathead based entirely on a geezer’s romanticized recollections of a long lost mother’s home cooking. A smile or a compliment is the sign of failure. The only acceptable evidence of success is a tear in the eye of your dinner guest. If you see this happen, then you can righteously claim to have mastered cathead theory at least once in your life.

There is perhaps no other kitchen product that is subjected to such an outrageously diverse and uncompromising set of standards. They range from thin and tough as a hockey puck to tall and fluffy as a cloud. They are spooned onto a hot stone or they are meticulously rolled, cut and pitched into a cold glass pan. They contain lard, butter, bacon fat, or shortening and they are raised with either yeast, sourdough, baking powder, baking soda or a combination thereof. The ratios of salt, sugar, campfire ash, gunpowder and/or dust from the bones of their ancestors must be handled with utmost consideration for fragile sensitivities. Yeast rolls, aka terrapins, are easy. Catheads will take your pants down in public and whip your ass like a red-headed stepchild. Of the hundreds of batches that I’ve made over the years, I recall only one time where my guest geezer got all swampy over the biscuits. He said it was something in his eye but we both knew better.

Unfortunately, the age of the cathead is coming to a close. Each day, more of our old folks leave this world and they take their demanding specifications with them. For most people born subsequent to the rise of the Fast Food Industrial Complex, the biscuit tube is not only adequate, it is preferred. Just reach into the fridge, retrieve the cardboard cylinder of pre-mixed, machine excreted dough, slap that baby on the countertop and you are instantly rewarded with a satisfying micro-explosion of shiny white pre-formed and cross-sectioned biscuit food nodules. I’ll probably go to hell for saying it, but those Pillsbury Buttermilk Flaky Biscuits do kick some ass. I imagine the ghosts of a million grannies are not too happy with me right now.


Blogger skinnylittleblonde said...

Yum...yum, yummy. I'd love some cathead biscuits right now! or some sourdough... or even some Pilsbury or that Hawaiin King Sweet Bread...which is sin in a tin.

At large gatherings, grannies do not cook for you, they cook “against” other grannies. LOL, some grannies do guard their recipes like a born-again virginity. When my dear gramma Lela passed & took with her, her famous chilli, I found myself year after year trying to replicate the taste she first put on my palette.

5:28 AM, October 23, 2006  
Blogger Cheesy said...

"gunpowder and/or dust from the bones of their ancestors" you got a HUGE grin out of me!
"and whip your ass like a red-headed stepchild" oh ya spank me!!! lmao
Tube biscuits do in a pinch... but you MUST try the new frozen ones... closest to homemade I've ever had!

Great post m'dear!

8:53 AM, October 23, 2006  
Blogger David said...

You are of course a genius.

9:23 AM, October 23, 2006  
Blogger Kara said...

Maybe he was crying because you're constantly calling him names like "geezer". I mean, just 'cause he is one doesn't mean you have to rub it in all the time. Insensitive. Really.

9:59 AM, October 23, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Skinny, I’ll have to research this Hawaiian King Bread thing. It might be a regional delicacy, as I have never heard of it. It is a crying shame your gramma’s chili recipe has been lost. I have spent decades trying to replicate a bread recipe from my grade school days. A big German lady named Mrs. Hesse could be seen in the kitchen every morning kneading huge piles of dough. All of our little school’s bread was made fresh every day. I’m getting hungry.

Hey Cheesy, I’ll give the frozen ones a shot. In some instances, industrial machinery is coming dangerously close to reproducing the taste and texture of home cooking. However, I believe they will never replicate the soul of granny’s home cooking. Those damn Pillsbury Flaky biscuits do kick some rump though.

Hi David, I believe you are giving me more credit than I deserve but I do appreciate your encouragement.

Hi Kara, in my world, the ancient ones wear the mantle of geezer with pride. Someday, with a little bit of luck, I will take my place beside them in those hallowed halls of geezer glory. I will turn my hearing aid off and I will poke unruly children with my cane. I will shout inappropriate things at the most embarrassing times. I will finally break free of the shackles of tact and decorum. I am almost there. If I can just last a few more years…

12:26 PM, October 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did the canned biscuits for a while till I saw my wife's grandmother make them from scratch.

Flower, milk, shortening, salt, baking powder.

You can have em mixed rolled and cut by the time the oven pre-heats.

Then make home made sausage gravy in the 13 min it takes them to bake.

Damn. Now I'm hungry.

3:38 PM, October 23, 2006  
Blogger Stucco said...

Slag, that post is quality through and through. Catheads don't sound like a wise challenge for me and my Irish Soda Bread abilities. I think I might take a few trillion more baby steps first :)

As an antithesis to your tale, I'm reminded of my former step father, who, while posessing no cooking ablilities or experience, decided one day to make a package of brownies while he was home alone and unsupervised. No one knows exactly what he did, but by the time the rest of us returned he was incredibly irritated and still working on the "Igor Brownies" (his term- and seasonal name, no?). His side of the story is that he followed the directions and that no matter how long he'd bake them for, they remained liquid and like magma. He embellished this characterization by describing how he'd tilt the pan and the would-be-brownies would flow to the low end. While he was describing this with his hands, he'd also make this "waaaaugh" sound. In the end, he somehow made soft fudge or something, and I was content to snarf down as much as was left unattended. Like a Bob Ross "Happy Accident" with chocolatey goodness. Heh.

3:49 PM, October 23, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hello Hammer, that’s what I’m talking about. Throw some sausage gravy on them and that’s all you need to live a full and happy life.

Hey Stucco, If you can do soda bread, you’re not far from the mighty cathead biscuit.
I’ve had plenty of calamities in the kitchen. I’ve eaten shit that I wouldn’t feed to a dog in the interest of not wasting scarce resources. One of the nastiest things I’ve ever seen in a kitchen was an attempted batch of cream gravy made from fried chicken scriffens. I had given a friend explicit instructions and she ended up with a 3 cups of lard floating on a bed of flour glue. I snuck through her back door, whipped up another batch, and then snuck out again. Everybody was very impressed with her gravy making skills.

9:47 PM, October 23, 2006  
Blogger Anne said...

I just love your stories and pictures! I don't understand though, what makes a biscuit a cat's head biscuit, as opposed to just a regular biscuit? You'd think we'd get more Southern food in Southern California, but we really don't.

10:38 PM, October 23, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Anne, thank you for your kind words. I will do my best to explain the cathead in the small space we have here. First, you risk the curse of a thousand grannies by using the plural “cats” instead of the singular “cat” in cathead. There are all kinds of opinions about what makes a biscuit a cathead. Some say it is the size, i.e. “as big as a cat’s head,” or it has a ragged appearance, “similar to the head of an alley cat.” It just goes on and on. What makes a biscuit a cathead has nothing to do with its appearance or size. Geezers will fight to the death for their version of it. A true cathead is a biscuit that is homemade, handmade, uses all fresh ingredients, almost always has buttermilk in it and it is built for one singular purpose. That purpose is to be the best damn biscuit that ever was. If you are just making biscuits, then biscuits are what you are making. If you tell everyone that you are throwing down a batch of catheads, you are letting them know that that they had better hang on to their asses because granny is in the goddamn kitchen. If you claim cathead status for your biscuits, they had better be good. Otherwise, you will have shamed the good name of this icon of southern cooking. One other thing, catheads do not have rosemary, basil, tarragon, gorgonzola cheese, or smoked salmon in or around them. They’re called biscuits when you do that to them, which is ok, they are just not catheads.

11:46 PM, October 23, 2006  
Blogger Anne said...

Much obliged, Slaghammer. Sorry, grannies. I make Canadian buscuits. You know how Canadians like hockey... well, my biscuits bring a tear to Canadians' eyes because they're so much like hockey pucks. :D Anne's body double

11:36 AM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger Anne said...

...anne's body double Polite Kitty says: "Hey man, leave my fuzzy little head alone!"

11:45 AM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Ann, I have several members of my family that require the hockey puck variety. You could re-sole a pair of boots with those things. Tell Polite Kitty that there were no kitties harmed in the making of my last batch of catheads.

12:21 PM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger JR's Thumbprints said...

The Pillsbury DoughBoy couldn't have said it any better. I'm sure his grandmother would be proud of him.

11:41 PM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger Serena said...

damn it! now you've made me hungry for biscuits!

but i do agree, pillsbury does make one hell of a biscuit mix. mmm.... am i the only one who gets kind of a weary paranoid anxiety while twisting those things and waiting for them to pop open? its like i always anticipate some sort of inexplicible huge explosion after i've some how fucked it up.. of course this only lasts for a second and then its mmm mmm mmm... biscuits!

11:54 PM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Jr’s Thumbprint, I’m guessing the doughboy had an easier time getting those recipes than I did. The old folks had not come around to the idea of men in the kitchen when all of that happened. Those grannies were a suspicious lot.

Serena, you are not alone. I haven’t done the biscuit cylinder in a long time but I would always squint my eyes just before it they popped open. Like a biscuit shard was going to fly out of the damn thing and blind me. In the old days, you had to handle the cheap brands carefully or they would blow as you were stripping the paper off the outside… freaked me out every damn time.

1:38 AM, October 25, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being from this side of the pond cant get my head around the image of someone dipping something like an oreo into gravy. But you have to hand it to grannies when it comes to the nitty gritty in baking they are indeed like magicians in the kitchen, I bet if they investigated colonel saunders they'd find the remains of a woman , bobby pins, a pinny and spectacles walled up somewhere....

3:52 AM, October 25, 2006  
Blogger skinnylittleblonde said...

Talking to a cajun co-hort of mine, I thought of this post. He wanted me to try his generations old recipe... fish-head soup. Yep, fish heads floating in a pot with sausage & a variety of veggies & some other stuff. Ewww... he said some folks just eat all the stuff around the heads & scrap them at the end. But, he himself personally loves the fish heads. Ewww & true. I never want to eat anything that has eyes looking back up at me.
I asked if he had ever had cathead bisquits, he said no, but they'd probably go good with the soup & seemed a little perplexed when I explained that they did not involve cats in anyway.

BTW- he's from New Orleans but says he's half part French & part Greek...which would make him a Freak. LOL.

11:17 AM, October 25, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Judith, if the gravy had chocolate chips in it, would that change your mind? I don’t know how well that would go with fried chicken but that is the beauty of cooking. If it tastes like shit, feed it to your friends.

Hey Skinny, if you are going to hang with the Cajuns, you have to get used to your food staring back at you. The soup you are talking about is referred to as Galveston Stew in these parts. By these parts, I mean the house that I live in. Galveston Stew is what I call any soup with fish heads floating it because the smell reminds me of Galveston shrimp boats when they pull into port, very aromatic. Anyway, your Cajun buddies are probably diggin on crackling biscuits or some such delicacy. I wonder if fishhead gravy would be any good.

12:11 PM, October 25, 2006  
Blogger Angel Feathers Tickle Me said...

An Angel Visits You

11:55 PM, October 25, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi angel, slag returns the favor.

12:08 AM, October 26, 2006  
Blogger Newsandseduction said...

Very creative and sweet, in a skeptical world. Food is the key to happiness.

3:44 AM, October 26, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi News, food is the key to the kingdom.

5:45 PM, October 26, 2006  
Blogger photo blog girl said...

I loved reading this was like a kid with a great picture book. Every graphic was the perfect choice. The drippy blood photo was a little gross in the context of biscuits though...maybe we've found your secret?

7:44 PM, October 26, 2006  
Blogger Serena said...

are you kidding? its teh blood that gives them that bright golden color and fluffy texture. can you think of a better binding agent for cooking? i certinally cant.

11:25 PM, October 26, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Photo girl, thanks. The images take much longer to find than a post takes to write. It seems like I look at fifty for every one I use. As for the blood, the kitchen is even more dangerous than the bathroom in terms of the blood shed by the victims of household accidents. Is this true, I don’t actually know.

Serena, you know what they say, there’s a little bit of the cook in everything he (or she) bakes. In this sense, we are all cannibals. Regarding the words “bright golden color and fluffy texture,” those words a like a dinner bell to me. It’s almost 1:00am here and I am seriously considering “warping” up a batch of catheads. Damn those things are good.

2:11 AM, October 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

have you tried guinness gravy?

9:32 AM, October 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got the "if you don't like what's on your plate, you can cook your own meal"-speech a few times. But mostly it was the "if you don't like what's on your plate, you're not hungry enough"-version.

That was back when I used to be fickle with my food. That lasted from when I was around four until I was eight. Now I'll eat just about anything...

1:54 PM, October 27, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Judith, I have not tried beer gravy. I have tried something called “redeye gravy.” It’s a mixture of fried ham cracklings, flour and coffee. It truly sucks.

Hi Choochoo, welcome to my humble blog. My experience was similar to yours in that respect, I too eventually became a human garbage disposal.

3:35 PM, October 27, 2006  
Blogger Bazza said...

This was a deep and meaningful post Slaghammer. Thanks for the introductory remarks for us Brits - much appreciated. One thing that needs explaining to me is the word geezer. In London it's a matey Cockney word for a bloke, chap or just man. Incidentally, my latest post is about Cockney rhyming slang.

5:06 PM, October 28, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Bazza, in this neck of the woods, a geezer is an very old man. The word geezer does double duty as a mild insult or as an endearing term. My use is definitely the latter. I refer to myself as a geez every now and then. I’m not quite there yet but there’s nothing wrong with getting used to the cold before you jump in the pool if you know what I mean.

10:57 PM, October 28, 2006  
Blogger NinaJo said...

Hiya Slag,I enjoyed your cathead story. My husbands grandma was the ultimate cathead maker in their family. She did use lard too.
She did the whole thing with her fingers in the bowl, rolling 'em out and they were always perfect.She could never tell anyone how she made them because she had no "recipe", you had to watch and learn.
I learned how to make her famous
buttermilk pies by watching her and writing down EVERYTHING she did. Now, I'm the only one in the family that makes them, and they all want me to make them their own pie!

My own Mother's biscuit making was just the opposite of Grandma's. She measured everything out, then rolled them out on a pastry board, then cut them with an old tin
She then dipped them in melted butter on both sides before she baked them.....they were awesome too!
I use a simpler way of makin' catheads. I use fine self-rising flour and whipping cream, then drop 'em in the pan and bake 'em.
Mine are awesome too!

12:12 AM, October 30, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Ninajo, it’s nice to cross paths with a fellow cathead lover. I have the same problem as your husband’s grandma when I try to teach people how to make one thing or another. I’m not big into measuring devices, and the most important things, how it is supposed to look, feel and taste at each step of the process has to be learned through experience. I also change things up on a regular basis, which aggravates people to no end. It’s hard to write down the theory behind the action. I’m going to try your method of using heavy cream instead of buttermilk on the batch after next. I’m craving buttermilk now and nothing else will do. Thanks for dropping by.

4:17 PM, October 30, 2006  
Blogger Laura(southernxyl) said...

Our catheads are always drop biscuits ... very large ones ... never rolled and cut. But you can still slice them in half and cover with butter and honey, or strawberry preserves.

I used to try to make chicken and dumplings on the stove but I always somehow ended up with chicken and milk gravy instead, so I finally gave up and started making that, and biscuits to put it on. Lots of black pepper. You can only do that about twice a year or your cholesterol would be stratospheric.

9:47 PM, October 30, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Laura, thanks for dropping by. Here I am after 1am again and I’m seriously considering warping up a batch of those damn catheads. Butter and honey are on equal footing with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy when it comes to keeping my biscuits company on a dinner plate. Btw, I started rolling out my dumplings as thin as paper years ago. I keep rolling them till you can read a newspaper through the dough and then cut them in short wide pieces. They do fatten up a little after they go in the pot. I agree completely with your heavy use of black pepper. I tone the pepper down for the tourists but not without raising a little hell about it first. Is there cholesterol in chicken and dumplings? For the sake of Zeus, please don’t tell me if there is. Ignorance is bliss.

1:35 AM, October 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pillsbury biscuits from a tube. Yum-yum. My grandmother used to make those. Which may help explain why I can't cook. Those skills were already lost in my family two generations back!

9:27 PM, October 31, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Parlancheq, tonight was cathead night at Alchemy house. As much as I love the mighty cathead, just mentioning the word Pillsbury makes my mouth water.

10:30 PM, October 31, 2006  
Blogger Laura(southernxyl) said...

You actually can make some fairly decent dumplings from tubed biscuits. I'd forgotten about that. They're gummy enough to hold together.

10:48 PM, November 01, 2006  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Laura, it can be done but you might have to answer to the ghosts of all those grannies in the afterlife.

2:11 AM, November 02, 2006  

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