When I was about seven or eight, I would spend the night with my great-grandmother every Wednesday night during the summer. She would get up early every morning and make biscuits from scratch. It didn’t matter what else we had to eat that day, which was usually just whatever my little heart desired, we always had homemade biscuits for breakfast.
Her kitchen was small. The refrigerator, stove, and sink were arranged in a tight triangle at one end of the room, and in this space Mamaw ruled. The butcher-block counters were worn, but always spotlessly clean, and the dark wood cabinets shined and smelled like lemon Pledge. She had a big pink Tupperware bowl with a white lid that she used to store her flour in a cabinet between the sink and the stove. I would watch in amazement as she would pat the flour down with her fist and pour buttermilk right into the storage bowl. It was magic to me that she could pour milk in the bowl and not get all the flour wet. She would use her fingers to stir the milk and shortening into the flour and soon she would have a ball of dough ready to be rolled out and cut into perfect, flaky biscuits.
I would usually stand on a stool by the stove and watch her cook for a little while before I would run outside to play or become engrossed in a television show or coloring book. But one rainy Thursday, as I sat at the tiny kitchen table and ate my biscuit while swinging my feet and banging my worn Keds into the metal legs of the red vinyl kitchen chairs, I asked if I could learn how to make the dough.
Mamaw picked up our plates and put them in the sink, then bent over and pulled her flour bowl out of the cabinet by the stove. “Get some buttermilk out of the ice box,” she said. “And pull that stool over here.” She set a tub of Crisco on the counter and handed me a little knife. “We’re gonna make fried apple pies.”
“You can make that out of biscuit dough?” I asked, placing my stool between the stainless steel sink and the stove.
Mamaw nodded. “First, we’re gonna cook the apples.” She set a bowl of red and gold speckled apples in front of me. “Can you peel these?”
I nodded and eagerly reached for the first apple while Mamaw draped a faded blue apron around my neck and tied it around my waist. My little hands worked as fast as they could. Mamaw stood beside me and peeled twice as many apples as I did in half the time. She told me stories about my mama and older cousins while we worked, then cut the apples into chunks and put them in a big saucepan on the stove. “We’ll let those cook for a little while,” she said. “Let’s work on the crust.”
She opened the lid on the flour bowl and took my hand in hers. “Make a fist,” she said, pushing my chubby fingers into a ball. “And pat it like this.” She pushed my knuckles into the soft flour. “Keep patting it down ‘til it’s hard.”
I pushed the flour down with all my might, my tongue stuck between my teeth in ultimate concentration. “Is this right?”
Mamaw examined my work and shook her head. “Your hole’s got to be deeper, and not as big around.” She shook the bowl a few times to loosen the flour. “Try again.”
On my third try, Mamaw approved. She dropped a big scoop of Crisco into the bowl, then let me pour in the buttermilk. “How much?” I asked.
Mamaw shrugged. “Just pour it ‘til it looks right,” she said. “I’ll tell you when.” I poured, watching her closely so I could stop at the exact moment that she said. “That’s good.” Mamaw took the jug of milk from me and set it by the sink. “Now, you’re gonna have to get your hands dirty,” she warned.
I wasn’t very concerned about that. I’d watched her make this dough hundreds of times, and it never stuck to her hands. I was absolutely sure it wouldn’t stick to mine either, so I plunged my chubby hands into the bowl. It was cold, squishy, and sticky. Mamaw laughed when I wrinkled my nose up and picked up my goo-covered hand. “What did I do wrong?” I asked, almost in tears.
“Nothing,” Mamaw said, wiping her hands on her pink flowered apron. “Keep mixing.”
“But it doesn’t stick to your hands!”
“It won’t stick to yours, if you practice,” she laughed. “Keep mixing.”
I rolled the goo between my fingers and smushed it deeper into the flour, until I finally had a somewhat solid ball of dough. Mamaw laughed as I raked it off my fingers and onto the floured butcher-block countertop. “Yuck,” I muttered, picking little rolls of dough off my hands.
Mamaw took the dough and patted it into a neat ball. She handed me her wooden rolling pin. “Flour this.”
“What do you mean?”
“Cover it with flour so it won’t stick to the dough,” Mamaw explained.
I reached into the flour bowl, took a fist-full of flour, and coated the rolling pin with flour. I also covered the floor, myself, and Mamaw. She pulled off her flour coated glasses and wiped them on her apron. I bit my lip nervously, waiting for her to get onto me, but she just laughed. She wiped the flour off her face, put her glasses back on, and rubbed her fingers over my flour covered bangs. “Now your hair matches mine,” she said with a grin.
She rolled out the dough and let me cut it into large circles, then she spooned the apples onto each piece and let me fold them over and press the edges with a fork. While I was decorating our masterpieces, Mamaw melted a big scoop of Crisco in a black iron skillet on the stove. The Crisco was bubbling and popping by the time I finished, and I stood behind Mamaw and peeked around her apron while she dropped the pies into the grease. They bubbled and popped until they were golden brown and the kitchen smelled like heaven, then Mamaw scooped them out of the grease and placed them on a paper towel.
She left the flour in the floor, all the stuff on the counter, and sat down at the table with me so we could try our pies. “These look yummy,” I said, watching her scoop a big spoonful of vanilla ice cream onto my plate.
I’d been waiting for those instructions all morning. I picked up a beautiful, golden brown pie and took a big bite. The crust was flaky, just like Mamaw’s biscuits. But the apples made my mouth pucker.
“What’s the matter?” Mamaw asked, when I forced myself to swallow and set my pie back down on my plate.
“I think I messed up your pies.” I pouted and crossed my arms over my chest.
Mamaw reached across the table for my pie and took a big bite. She made the same bad face I had made. “We forgot to put sugar in the apples.” Mamaw looked over her glasses and pointed at me. “Don’t you tell anybody I did that.”
“It’ll be our secret?”
The front door swung open and my cousin, Lisa, walked in. “What in the world happened in here?” she asked, looking at the flour that was covering the flour, the counter, and us.
“We just had a little cooking lesson,” Mamaw said.
“You made a mess.”
“That’s what a broom is for.” Mamaw stood up and pushed the plate of pies into my hand. “Take these outside,” she whispered.
“What did you make?” Lisa asked.
“It’s a secret,” Mamaw said. She winked at me and started cleaning up while I snuck down the back steps and into the yard to get rid of the evidence.
Now, when I make fried apple pies, I always double check to make sure I put sugar in the apples. The dough still sticks to my fingers, no matter how much I practice. I may not have learned the secret of the dough, but I did learn that the best things that come out of the kitchen aren’t always things you eat. Sometimes, it’s the memories – the giggles and the messes and the secrets – that are the sweetest.