By Robert St. John
How many cat head biscuits can a man eat in one sitting? There are two legitimate types of biscuits in this world: City biscuits and country biscuits, all others are derivatives of the two or store-bought imposters.
City biscuits are like the ones my grandmother made. They were small, slightly salty, delicate and light. Country biscuits are sturdier on the outside, somewhat lighter on the inside, and much, much larger than city biscuits – about the size of a cat’s head.
On a recent trip to Chicago, my friend Jonathan was speaking fondly about eating Sunday dinner at his grandmother’s house every week since childhood. I knew exactly how he felt because the fondest memories of my childhood were of Sunday meals at my grandmother’s house. “I’d love to come over one Sunday, if they have room,” I said, inviting myself, and breaking several etiquette rules that my city biscuit-cooking grandmother would have frowned upon.
A few weeks later he invited me to dinner at his grandmother’s. Last Thursday night, five city dwellers drove deep into Walthall County to the home of Ann and Joe Ladner in Sandy Hook, Miss., for a mid-week “Sunday dinner.”
It was dusk, and supper was ready when we arrived. After the food was blessed, we moved into the kitchen. The counter was covered with bowls and dishes of food – almost all of it grown and raised within a few hundred feet from where the final product was being plated.
There was roasted quail, fried quail, hominy, Brussels sprouts, rice, gravy, baked sweet potatoes, candied yams, creamed corn and a Thanksgiving-sized platter of cat head biscuits. By the time I had made my way through the main course and vegetable offerings there wasn’t any room on my plate for one of the enormous biscuits. Undaunted, I grabbed a cat head and placed it on top of the impressive mound of food on my plate.
I was surprised to find that a biscuit that large was so light. I knew immediately that my quick bread fate was in skilled hands.
The crew from Hattiesburg sat in the dining room and, without too much conversation, we began to dive into what would end up being one of the finest home-cooked meals I have enjoyed in recent memory. The creamed corn merits an entire column and, though usually not a fan, the candied yams were outstanding.
In front of me on the dining table, next to a vase of freshly cut sunflowers, were several bowls of homemade preserves – peach, strawberry and fig. There was a small tin of cane syrup, which is the requisite accompaniment for cat head biscuits, but not in my book. I reached for the peach (made from trees in the backyard).
My plate was about a third clean when I had the first bite of biscuit with peach preserves. For a split second it seemed as if time stood still. There was conversation going on, but I couldn’t hear it. If this had been a scene in a movie, the ceiling of the dining room would have parted to the heavens, a bright light would have shone down upon me and my biscuit, and a choir of angels would have sung a four-part harmonized a cappella version of a Hank Sr. song. Perfection.
When I came back down to earth, two thoughts were racing in my head: How am I going to politely ask for another biscuit? – and I wonder what the homemade strawberry preserves taste like. I didn’t have to think too long as Mrs. Ladner walked into the dining room holding the large platter of cat heads, mounded high and still warm. “Would anyone like another?” It’s probably a good thing my mouth was so full of biscuit, or I might have squealed like a kindergartener.
When she reached my end of the table with the tray, I grabbed one of the enormous biscuits but it was attached to another. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“Go ahead, have them both,” said Mrs. Ladner.
God bless that woman, not only for her biscuit-making prowess, but for her generosity as well. With the second biscuit I tried the homemade strawberry preserves, which came from the same garden in the front yard that yielded the sunflowers, Brussels sprouts and corn. Excellent. It was around this time I forgot about the quail and yams, and devoted my full attention to that massive mound of buttermilk and shortening-filled flawlessness. The fig preserves (from the side yard no less) were good, too. No surprise there.
There was a small plate with butter on it but I never touched it. It wasn’t needed. These biscuits were dead solid perfect.
By my third cat head I was growing a little jealous of Joe Ladner, the man of the house, for getting to eat these beautiful king-sized beauties on a regular basis.
After my fourth cat head biscuit, one solely devoted to the homemade fig preserves, I began to wonder how I might politely skip dessert and just eat another, this time returning full circle to the homemade peach preserves. I didn’t have to think too long as one of Mrs. Ladner’s daughters placed a bowl of blackberry and dewberry cobbler topped with homemade vanilla ice cream in front of me. Within seconds, her sister flanked her to the left with the large platter of cat heads. “Have both,” they said. I love these people.
The answer to “How many cat head biscuits can a man eat in one sitting?” is five. Though I think, next time, if I skipped the quail, yams and cobbler, I might be able to eat seven.
Here’s hoping I’ll get to find out one day.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.