Humble folk: humble food. Part 1

Humble folk: humble food. Part 1

By David Wantz, University of Indianapolis

My relatives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland still speak in a dialect that harks back to Elizabethan England. They live on land that they inherited from their ancestors going back as far as the founding of the colony before 1700. Steamed hardcrabs, Chincoteague oysters, and canvasback duck, now celebrated as gourmet cuisine, were but staples in lives as sharp and tough as clamshells. They also ate simpler foods to get them by when the crabs weren’t running, the ducks weren’t flying, and the skipjacks were frozen in their moorings.

My family still eats two of these simple foods as a matter of religious practice. They are beaten biscuits and sharp cheese with molasses. First, the biscuits.

Beaten biscuits are made of nothing more than flour, water, salt and lard (or butter, today). The dough is made up and then beaten with the poll, or flat end, of an axe until the dough blisters. In my old copy of Maryland’s Way Cookbook the advice is to beat the dough 45 minutes for company. Families could eat biscuits beaten for less time, I suppose.

The dough is rolled in the hand and pricked on the top with a fork and set in a hot oven. The result is a dense, heavy, somewhat chewy knot of blandness. “It don’t taste all that good, but at least it’s hard to eat,” was the wry comment an old-timer once told me.

Beaten biscuits could be carried in your pocket all day and not crumble. They could be added to broth to give it some substance. Matzo-ball soup anyone? Mainly, they are cultural artifacts that have hung on for years.

When I was home recently, I visited Mr. Orrell in Wye Mills. His family is still making and shipping beaten biscuits all over the country, mostly to Marylanders who have moved away and can’t find something else to gnaw on. He invited me into the house that serves as the bakery and showed me the ingenious machinery they have used to simulate the actual beating. It resembled a re-purposed wringer-washer. Local women sit around a Formica-topped table and, after it has been sufficiently tamed, knead the dough onto balls. They then prick biscuits and bake them in the kind of oven that you would find in any kitchen. It’s nice to see that modern techniques haven’t invaded the process.

You can find Orrell’s Maryland Beaten Biscuits on the Internet. I guess they have yielded to modernity a bit. It’s best to buy the biscuits early in the week. By Thursday, they are too hard. I asked Mr. Orrell how they could tell. He just winked at me.

I like my beaten biscuits with a paper-thin slice of Smithfield ham slipped in the midst. The salty ham generates enough saliva to swallow the biscuit.

Maybe you have some thoughts about food as well. Let me invite you to share them during the 15th annual Spirit and Place Civic Festival this year. The theme is Food for Thought and will run from November 5 through 14. I am David Wantz and I am a member of the S&P board. I hope you will join us.

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