Kentucky Poet Savors Cookie Brake – Garden & Gun


I will admit that my method of making battered biscuits is peculiar and devious – one might say independent – and subject to the outright suspension of the so-called process to allow for mythical and legendary musings, and for the occasional metaphysical push into the ether, but if you don’t mind going around the barn, as they say, I’ll tell you how.

First you need a dead dad who had the occasional good idea, though few came to fruition. And almost inexplicably, because the preparation of ordinary food, to any extent, has always remained shrouded in mystery for him, he needs to have hidden among his meager belongings a cookie brake. Although, as befits this particular squirrel, it is only a partial bisque frenulum, solemnly glimpsed on a shelf, like a solitary set of upper dentures.

A good biscuit brake, as conceived in the 19th century, consists of the sometimes dangerous rolling apparatus of a wringer washer, preferably with a serviceable crank and adjustable rollers that can almost meet and pinch enough to squeeze the letters of a painful. page of Leviticus. The spinners should be set to spill the dough onto a cold marble slab dusted with flour. Although only a curious luxury, if the foot pedal of a treadle sewing machine were practical, you could attach a lost pulley in place of the crank and thus connect the rollers and the treadle with a belt or a piece of leather, and then you might tell your neighbors your feet hurt from baking cookies, and it would make your head spin or two. But that’s exactly the kind of entertainment you can indulge in with battered cookies.

Then you need a big-armed great-grandmother born around 1888. And the great-grandmother must be the type to have left behind a recipe, which she identified as “my receipt”, written on a rectangle of yellowed paper in the current aged and burnished ink of a fountain pen. The receipt will ask for one liter of flour, two round teaspoons of baking powder and sugar, and one of salt, in addition to four round tablespoons of lard. Whenever the first “round” appears, it should come as no surprise that the receipt records a ditto mark, ˝, in place of the actual word. And, of course, he will finally advise: “Put the dough into the kneader until the dough is smooth and the bubbles burst”.

And that explains the wringers salvaged from the old washing machine, a famous eyesore or conversation piece on country porches, a more useful appliance discarded to devise another whose use will be revived a hundred years after the demise of the first, and recently reconfigured to allow operation by a left-handed operator, i.e. you. The sound of bubbles bursting from the sedimentary compression of cookie dough is a kind of music.

The great-grandmother will also be the type to have endured and survived every form of mountaineer violence and corruption ever conceived, whether by the apologists or the accusers of the southern mountaineers, the one who witnessed and who knew that men are those whose recklessness and vendetta-tainted code drives them to commit violence and corruption in the first place unnecessary, which only women, if there are any, can redeem. And she did. She has achieved the serenity of love which is the only thing worth suffering and the only thing the next generation or the next will want or need as an inheritance.

Then you will find yourself dazed by the memory that, as a child, you often played with the same fountain pen with which she wrote down her receipt, a pen whose reservoir was as dry as an October corn stalk and whose nib scratched the rough paper as if you know the letters. and had something to say that required the work and rhythm to transform the pen into a musical instrument, as Orpheus of old tuned his lyre or Pan twisted his humble reed. The quill slept in a shabby drawer of rubbish and old postcards addressed to “Kiddo” or “Sister” that the great-grandmother kept in her bedroom. You will need that memory recalled and now indelible in your mind decades later, with the great-grandmother long returned to earth, though the receipt survives, as does the fountain pen, which one day in the search for meaning during a time of pestilence and pestilence, you decide to fill with ink, and soon the pen comes to life.

At this point the circuit ensnaring the proverbial barn widens and meanders further into the ineffable maze of time and locution, the very Logos, the rock that underlies articulate thought. Curiously (though there must be a calling voice in the dark mystery to which your ear settles and determines to respond), you find yourself re-reading the works of William Faulkner for – what? To approach, not to atone, but to begin to fathom the founding sin of a nation, for violence of any measure marks its own moment but also leaves its mark to cloud and entangle the unimaginable future, which is now.

As the reading mind and the written word find ever closer commerce and agreement, you come to this from the last “Dilsey section” of The sound and the fury (1929). Dilsey, the black cook who ties together the frayed strands of the white Compson family, discovers her teenage grandson, Luster, holed up in the Compson family basement, trying to play the handsaw, an Orphic image if any. is one: “He held the saw in his left hand, the blade jumped a little under the pressure of his hand, and he was hitting the blade with the worn wooden mallet with which it had been making beaten biscuit for more than thirty years. The saw made a single slow sound that died away with lifeless rapidity, leaving the blade in a sharp, thin curve between Luster’s hand and the ground. Yet, impenetrable, it swelled.

The significance of this routine, which involves a version of the diddley bow and its African-derived calabash-cut cousin, the banjo, is itself somewhat inscrutable. Chalk this down to Faulkner’s excessive attention to detail without always providing a connection. What rings true in this gothic peek into the underworld is the worn wooden mallet. This would have been the original tool needed to make battered biscuits. Dilsey allegedly rolled the dough on a wooden slab and beat the dough with the large mallet until the bubbles burst. Compared to the brutality of the mallet, the wringers thrown from a washing machine look like reflections of a golden age of progress and advancement.

Now your mind is full of many things the Cookie Brake has sparked or perhaps revealed: the fountain pen, the sweetness of the old woman who first owned it, her handwritten receipt, and the books, novels forged from anguish and truth, hard to understand and harder to digest. Beaten cookies make an equally flippant appearance in Zora Neale Hurston Their eyes looked at God, and later appear almost incidentally in three Walker Percy novels. In each, however, the biscuit maker is a grandmother. The wheels spinning in your mind stop. As with many other facets of truth, what you are about to undertake is delicate and difficult.

photo: Andrew Hyslop

The author’s great-grandmother’s faded recipe card and a new batch of battered cookies ready for the oven.

And so it is time, after seventy years, it is time. You get the receipt which asks for a liter of flour, the heaped teaspoons of baking powder, sugar and salt, the four heaped tablespoons of lard and a cup of cold water. You mix the dry ingredients and chop the lard with a pair of forks, then add the water. Then you put the dough on the marble slab and work it lightly before inserting it with your right hand into the kneading machine which you turn with your left, again and again, until the dough is smooth and the bubbles burst in chorus of their own singular music. Cut the cookies with the rim of a shot glass if you have one, and prick them three times with a fork. Ten or eleven minutes in a hot, transfiguring oven. A knob of butter so that the hot biscuit receives and melts on itself like a sacrament. And soon, for a moment, the darkness is lifted, and the heart, though tried, for the brief duration of ancient and sacred indulgence, is restored.

I guess you might also have to be the kind of person who succumbs to vicissitudes and curiosities and the occasional wisdom of the proverbial wild hair, as well as one who has the temerity to follow through. If so, then you’re probably the one who believes that despite the blunt name, baking a battered cookie is an honorable and decided art. It is a work whose reward cannot be measured and whose effort causes no regrets.


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