Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Beat Those Biscuits

QUESTION: I live in South Carolina, though I’m not a native. Recently, I attended an estate sale at an old farm. Out of all the items for sale, I bought an old clunky table that looks like it may have been used for baking. It stands higher than a regular table and has a hinged top under which is a rectangular stone block. What can you tell me about this table?

ANSWER: It seems that you stumbled upon an old biscuit table. These specially made baking tables were a stable in 19th-century Southern kitchens.

When people think of Southern biscuits, they imagine fluffy, buttery pillows of golden, flaky pastry made from White Lily flour. But these delicacies weren't always common fare on the Southern dinner table. Until baking powder came on the market in the late 19th century, most biscuits were unleavened and beaten.

Housewives and plantation cooks back then pounded the dough, Iayer upon layer, to make the otherwise tough dough flaky and palatable. Recipes in the 1850s required the dough be worked for at least a half hour. The work was so labor intensive that rhythmic pounding resonated from plantation kitchens in the early mornings. One neighborhood in Danville, Kentucky, along its historic Third Street became known as "Beaten Biscuit Row." According to legend, the steady pounding of biscuits from the outdoor kitchens of the houses lining the street greeted passersby during the 19th century.

Preparing biscuits was a tiring job, so cooks, who had to bend over their kitchen tables to knead and pound biscuit dough, needed a special table to save their backs. The result was a worktable of appropriate height at which they could stand and beat the dough into layers for the required 30 minutes. In the beginning, slaves on plantations probably made the first biscuit tables from wood. They were about three feet in diameter and four feet high.

The biscuit table, like the sugar chest, evolved into a furniture form as the 19th century progressed. Increased sugar production and the demand for candies in Creole New Orleans fostered the concept of using marble slabs to prepare confections. This worked so well that the idea crossed over to bread making. By the 1850s, biscuit table makers began incorporating slabs of marble, limestone and granite into the once simple wooden biscuit slab. Going one step further, they added hinged covers to the tabletop to allow dough to rest without fear of insects or other critters ruining a morning's labor. Like the beaten biscuit, itself, the biscuit table seemed to appear in Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, all of which take credit for its origin. Cooks in Louisiana used a related form to make candy confections.

Carpenters used mostly poplar wood to make plantation biscuit tables, though tables of yellow pine and walnut have been known to exist. Most biscuit tables that have survived are sturdy but crude in construction, with many having been fashioned from roughly finished lumber and square nails or pegs. The slabs or stones were generally of locally quarried limestone.

The biscuit table lost its usefulness with the invention of the beaten biscuit machine, a roller contraption cranked by hand much like that found on old wringer washers. This little device could be mounted onto the kitchen worktable or a cook could order one attached to a cast-iron table that could be delivered to a home. Factories in St. Louis commercially produced and shipped biscuit tables to eager housewives throughout the South.

It seems that by the beginning of the 20th century, the beaten biscuit had become Southern folklore, though still preserved in many old-fashioned kitchens of the day. But as the century progressed, southern biscuit tables were either destroyed or stored in barns.