Taste Buds: Beaten by Biscuits
“I recommend three Maryland beaten biscuits, with water, for your breakfast. They are hard as a haul-seiner’s conscience and dry as a dredger’s tongue, and they sit for hours in your morning stomach like ballast on a tender ship’s keel. They cost little, are easily and crumblessly carried in your pockets, and if forgotten and gone stale, are neither harder nor less palatable than when fresh. […] Few things are stable in this world. Your morning stomach, reader, ballasted with three Maryland beaten biscuits, will be stable."
These lines are from page 53 of the Anchor Books edition of “The Floating Opera” by John Barth. The speaker is Todd Andrews, lawyer, addressing the reader as he takes his morning walk on a hot June day in 1937. This may be the last morning of his life. He has explosive plans for the coming evening, which I wouldn’t dare spoil.
I bought my copy at the Washington College bookstore, at the end of August 1996. Reading it for the first time, I already had an idea of Maryland beaten biscuits. I grew up on Kent Island. My family’s roots are in Queen Anne’s, Kent, and Wicomico counties. I knew about Maryland beaten biscuits. I agreed with what Todd Andrews had to say about them. Except, maybe, for the recommendation.
Washington College in 1996 had a mandatory two-year course of study for all students, called CNW, or “Community Nation World” — the upshot of this was that every student’s first semester would include a class with some aspect of Eastern Shore life and culture as its subject matter. My high school diploma from the county across the river did not exempt me from that requirement, as I half-thought it should. So, I took a class on the works of John Barth. This turned out to be a wise decision.
I met my best friend in that class. She and I traveled together through “The Floating Opera” and “The End of the Road,” Barth’s first two novels. “Opera” takes place in Cambridge, while “Road” plays out in a lightly disguised Salisbury and environs (no beaten biscuits in that one, but there is a trip to Ocean City). That’s a brisk, compact pair of novels, especially compared to what we saw each other through next — the full, considerable, mammoth-as-heck length of “The Sot-Weed Factor,” a comic monster of a book set in late-17th-century Dorchester County, written in period English. A brilliant book, but good Lord, there’s a lot of it.
I don’t recall any specific mention of beaten biscuits in “Sot-Weed,” yet any story involving Colonial-era sea travel can’t help but evoke them. Beaten biscuits are descended, not so distantly, from ship’s biscuit, otherwise known as hard tack. When you attempt to sink your teeth into a beaten biscuit, it’s easy to imagine you’re eating a thing baked circa 1691, given a tough hide by the mist and brine of an ocean crossing. Hard stuff, very hard. The sort of thing Blackbeard would dunk in his coffee, if he were a coffee drinker (this coffee would be hard, too). If Davy Jones’ locker were a cookie jar, the cookies inside would be Maryland beaten biscuits. Another friend of mine, one I met long after the Barth class, calls them “beatin’ biscuits.” I can’t argue with that.
I was hooked on Barth that fall. I went off-syllabus to read “Giles Goat-Boy,” his other insane, complex, incredible doorstop from the 60s. I grabbed up as much of the rest of his bibliography as I could lay my hands on, short-form and long. And I enjoyed watching my new friends from the western Shore and points beyond as they encountered my peculiar home country through the spyglass his words made for them. One cold night we took a class field trip to Cambridge, with a bus tour of “Floating Opera” locations and dinner in a restaurant very near to where Todd Andrews takes his breakfast walk on page 53, up High Street to Long Wharf. No beaten biscuits were had on the premises, though the Old Bay was plentiful.
Two decades and some change later, most of that time spent hundreds of miles from the Eastern Shore, many things have changed. I have a small human and animal family of my own in Georgia, where the biscuits are flaky, gilded, kissed by buttermilk, practically a religion unto themselves. My library has grown by an order of magnitude since I lived in a dorm. Barth still occupies a place of honor on the shelf. In a shelving system that makes sense only to me, his current neighbors are Saki, Neil Gaiman, and another literary Marylander with ties to Chestertown, James M. Cain. And when my eyes pass over the spine of “The Floating Opera,” which they do several times daily, my inevitable thought is Maryland beaten biscuits.
Of all the elements of the man’s work to leap out at me again and again, why does it have to be the biscuits? Why do they have space in my head? Why would they have space on anyone’s table, for that matter?
Is it tradition alone that drives people to eat them? Tradition does make us believe, behave, and dine in ways that defy logic and good sense. For years it drove me to eat one beaten biscuit per annum, just one and no more, under the most traditional of circumstances.
In the case of twenty-some years of Thanksgiving dinners at my dad’s family home, I have a distinct set of memories that will never leave me: a set of glassware painted with perching birds, from the blue jay to the Baltimore oriole (Pop-Pop loved birds, and carved exquisite ones out of wood); paper cups of vegetable juice and cranberry juice handed around as alcohol-free apéritifs; the applesauce, deliciously doctored with cinnamon and vanilla, that Mom-Mom served with every dinner, holiday or not; and those dense, pale, un-biteable dough-objects my dad and others would eat with obvious pleasure. As if they were sharing an oblique joke that I was too green to understand.
The secret to beaten biscuits is right there in the name. To make them properly in the time-honored way, you have to beat them. You prepare the dough, and then you beat it. Beat it with a rolling pin, or a hammer, or the broad side of a hatchet, or a standard kitchen brick. You could beat it with a candlestick in the conservatory like Mrs. Peacock, if you wanted to. How long do you beat the dough? Anywhere from forty-five minutes to four months is recommended. The recipe hails from a time when bakers did not have ready access to ingredients like leavening, butter, or joy, and the stuff they baked needed to last a good while — that prolonged beating annihilates the gluten in the dough, which lets the biscuits stay nice and sturdy in the hold of your pirate ship. They won’t rise as dramatically as a biscuit of the non-beaten variety. They will, however, gain character from the beating, like the face of a bare-knuckle boxer.
To release any lingering air bubbles that you may have beaten in before baking, it’s customary to prick a design in the top of each rolled and formed biscuit with a pin, or with a special biscuit pricker. The biscuits of my memory are tattooed with horseshoes. With the ends pointed down, so the good luck falls out. Or maybe they were omega symbols, not horseshoes. Omega, the end of the Greek alphabet. The end of the meal. The end of everything.
I always took a biscuit when the basket came to me, having been brought up right, and found a place for it on my crowded plate. What to do with it next was more of a puzzle. How to eat it? Butter didn’t help, I’d learned that lesson. Turkey gravy didn’t help, either, though it did provide a bit of warmth. I have been told that eating a beaten biscuit fresh and hot from the oven does make for a different experience. I wouldn’t know. Ours at Thanksgiving were bought ready-baked by the bag from the supermarket, and good luck finding any there now. Even my nearest and dearest who loved them didn’t have the time to apply extensive blunt-force trauma to a wad of dough. You can make a reasonable facsimile of beaten biscuits by accident, as my family learned much more recently — just mix up a batch of regular oughta-be-flaky biscuits using expired Bisquick, and voilà.
Every year I took a beaten biscuit out of a sense of ... cultural responsibility, I guess. Respect for tradition. And every year it sat on my plate through the meal to be consumed last, smooth and pale as puffball fungus on a lawn. I would end up washing down bites of it with mouthfuls of the house wine, strong iced tea sweetened with Equal. Sometimes the foods adjacent to the biscuit on the plate would have left traces of themselves on it, like the whole block pitching in to heighten a downtrodden neighbor’s curb appeal. A smudge of green bean casserole, a strand of sauerkraut, a magenta schmear of strawberry-pretzel salad. It must be said, none of this decoration made the biscuit taste any worse. Then dinner would be over, at least until we did it again later in the evening with my mom’s family, elsewhere on the island. No beaten biscuits there. No need for them there, not on my account. I had eaten my one for the year. I had paid my dues. I had rendered homage to the Eastern Shore.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m totally negative about the foodways of the place that raised me. Because that, as they say, ain’t it. I have an ideal Eastern Shore menu, in fact. I’ve had it ever since I moved away. Some of the courses on it are easy enough to get, while some can only be tasted in memory. All are outstanding and delicious.
Crabs, naturally. My Eastern Shore menu must include at least one form of crab. My preference would be for a fried soft crab, on a plate or on a roll, I’m fine either way. Failing that, a crab cake, as long as it’s all crabmeat, with a generous proportion of backfin, and not faffed around with breadcrumbs, minced herbs, aïoli, or what have you.
There’s oyster stew, specifically as it’s brewed at Fisherman’s Inn in Kent Narrows. I have the restaurant’s official cookbook, and when I get the craving (and can afford to buy that quantity of oysters in north Georgia), theirs is the recipe I make.
I’ve only eaten shad roe once in my life, ordered out of sentimental curiosity on my birthday. I’d been told it was a favorite of someone I loved very much, even though she had died before I was born. It was incredible. I have been yearning for a repeat ever since.
Though I bought a skillet when I moved away, and took notes from my mom, I still haven’t mastered what I know as the Eastern Shore fried chicken technique - seasoned and floured rather than battered, browned quickly over high heat and then covered to fry gently in its own steam until done, leading to a lighter, crispier, more delicate dish than the deep-fried Georgia variety (which is its own kind of perfect food).
There should be tomatoes from a farm stand, sliced thickly and piled redly next to that fried chicken, or maybe tucked into a sandwich (on white bread with mayonnaise, salt, black pepper, and not a thing else). Let’s throw some corn on the cob next to that chicken, too, while we’re at it.
I wouldn’t kick a piece of Smith Island cake out of bed when it’s time for dessert. A teacher at Stevensville Middle School once told our class, with great gravity, that the chocolate milkshakes at Holly’s Restaurant in Grasonville were the best in the world. She wasn’t wrong. But, since Holly’s is gone now, the cake will have to do.
These are the things I’m hungry for when I miss the Eastern Shore. Here’s the weird part, though - I’m also hungry for Maryland beaten biscuits. I want to find a place for them on the menu, bland and claylike as they are.
It can’t just be that my palate has matured. There are plenty of things I enjoy eating now that I wouldn’t have messed with twenty years ago. Things like kale, Brussels sprouts, butter beans and corn, anchovies. But I’ve had opportunities in those twenty years to taste and reevaluate all of these. They have crossed my path, and my plate. Not so for beaten biscuits. They’re only a memory. A dry, thick, forbidding memory.
And yet, here we are. The biscuits have beaten me. I fought the biscuits, and the biscuits won. I miss them. Lately I’ve been craving the things. Marcel Proust would understand, I think.
Maybe you’ve read some Proust, maybe you haven’t. More people haven’t read him than have (though I’d bet John Barth has). Suffice it to say that Proust wrote a very, very long series of novels under the collective title “In Search of Lost Time” about, among other things, the way that memories of the past can rise up around us, alive with scents and tastes and vivid emotions, when some trivial thing we encounter in the present evokes them. And the sensation that starts the narrator on his journey is the taste of a madeleine, taken with tea, at the end of a miserable day.
A madeleine is a whirlwind of flavor next to a beaten biscuit, but on its own merit it’s nothing to write home about, taste-wise. Its most notable quality is its seashell shape, formed in a special fluted mold. Beyond that, it’s a sponge cake. Simple, inoffensive, sometimes given an extra quelque chose with lemon or lavender, its dimensions perfect for dunking into a teacup. Yet the taste of one is enough to project the narrator back into his childhood, if only for a moment. In Search of Lost Time, all 750,000 nautical miles of it, is about those moments when the past reaches out to us in the present, through a cookie, or a spray of flowers, or a flight of birds, and gives us something we need. A foodstuff that doesn’t satisfy your taste buds might touch a deeper part of your brain and satisfy a different hunger.
I would not want to live in the past. I don’t believe that’s a healthy thing to want. If you should find a door to the past, don’t go through. If you’re ever offered a trip to the past, in a flying blue telephone box or a discontinued sports car with funny doors, just say NO, that’s my policy. Yet sometimes, it’s handy to brush up against the past, make sure it’s still there, just as a reminder that you’re not flailing around untethered in the world, you came from somewhere. Less a door into the past than a window on the past. It may be the kind of window you can peek through to observe how things used to be. Or perhaps it’s the kind you can open up and stick your head through for a draft of cool air when things are stifling. Or why not both?
I have a suspicion that a beaten biscuit could do that for me. I know the mere thought of one can get me part of the way there — what might the actual taste of one do?
It might project me backwards into a period of time when everything was not necessarily happier, not always, but surely simpler. A time when I was unaware of many things, unconcerned about many others, interested mainly in inventing stories, making friends, avoiding math, and conquering video games. This stretch of years would culminate in my freshman year in Chestertown, when I had nothing to do but build friendships, go to classes I had chosen for myself, and learn to be an individual under the invisible protective dome of a college campus.
Shortly thereafter, several circumstances would collide to complicate my life enormously, as so often happens at college. Many things became clouded, and the road ahead had a few sharp turns that were hard to see in the fog. We would call that becoming an adult nowadays. Tasting a beaten biscuit, one “easily and crumblessly carried” in my pocket, might remind me of where I was, of who I was, when I read about them in “The Floating Opera,” before all of that. That book compared them to ballast, and what happens to a ship with no ballast?
That’s the oblique joke I could never get. That’s what my older relatives around the Thanksgiving table knew as they ate biscuit after biscuit. Traditional foods are ballast. Ballast keeps the mast pointing at the sky and helps Captain Nemo cruise the Nautilus through squid-infested seas. Life is rife with opportunities to capsize. We all need as much ballast as we can get.
It’s tough for children or young adults to get their heads around the restorative power tradition can have, at the table and away from it. You need some years in the rear-view mirror, and some miles on your soul, for that to make sense. I needed some personal experience of the world as a place where few things are stable, in order to appreciate the stabilizing influence of what used to be, to my eyes, off-white racquetballs daubed with margarine.
During the writing of this piece, something amazing happened: down in Florida, after years of no beaten biscuits, my dad found the right recipe and cracked the code. Previous recipes hadn’t done the job. This one? Nailed it, he said. So far, I’ve only seen a picture, but I have to agree. And it turns out that you don’t even need to get after the dough with a polo mallet anymore. For excellent results, use a food processor to handle the beating. That’s what I’d call better living through technology. Also, use lard. Shortening might be better for you, but it just won’t get the job done right. Lard’s not as easy to find as it used to be, which is better for everyone’s aorta. But for some things, there is no substitute. And if you look for manteca in your grocery store’s Latin American section, you’ll find what you need.
I should be getting down to Florida for a visit soon. Might do some baking. Might make life more stable for an evening. You never know.