If there was ever a breakfast food that served as the epitome of what it means to be a southerner it would be the biscuit. Smother a couple “cat heads” in gravy and you’ve experienced one of the closet things to heaven this side of the grave.
Though our cousins from across the pond would argue that what we call “biscuits” are actually “cookies” or “scones”, the reality is that the term biscuit dates back to the medieval days of centuries past. Reporting on this subject, Elizabeth David, writes “It is interesting that these soft biscuits are common to Scotland and Guernsey, and that the term biscuit as applied to a soft product was retained in these places, and in America, whereas in England it has completely died out.”
The biscuit, as we know it, can be traced to the cooking habits of America’s early European settlers. Arriving in the New World with limited resources, the food in early colonial America was bland and simple — often ground wheat would be baked and flavored with some form of gravy.
From these early recipes evolved what would come to be known as the American biscuit which emerged as a distinct food type in the early 1800s.
In days when yeast was expensive, especially in the South, cooks would laboriously beat the dough then fold it to incorporate air into the product which expanded when heated in the oven causing the biscuit to rise. In eating, the advantage of the biscuit over a slice of bread was that it was harder, and hence kept its shape when wiping up gravy in the popular combination biscuits and gravy.
In 1875, Alexander P. Ashbourne patented the first biscuit cutter. It consisted of a board to roll the biscuits out on, which was hinged to a metal plate with various biscuit cutter shapes mounted to it.
According to historians, southern chefs may have had an advantage in creating biscuits. “Northern American all-purpose flours, mainly grown in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, are made from the hard spring wheats that grow in the North’s cold-winter climate. Southern American bleached all-purpose flours, originally grown in the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee before national food distribution networks, are made from the soft winter wheat that grows in the warm southern summer. This summer growth results in wheat that has less protein, which is more suited to the creation of quick breads, as well as cookies, cakes and muffins.”
It is for these reasons that the South grew to embrace and celebrate “cat heads”.
Meanwhile, in the North, a new type of bread was being introduced by Jewish immigrants: The bagel.
Bagels were brought to the United States by Polish Jews who quickly realized the breads they had grown up knowing were an oddity in the New York City area. They quickly went to work producing and selling this new breakfast bread and soon operations had expanded into the entire Northeast.
As advances in technology in the latter half of the 1900s made bagel production more inexpensive, the product quickly expanded its reach and soon became the breakfast bread of choice for many Americans… except in the heart of Dixie, where we have an undying loyalty and affection for our biscuits!
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