October 2nd 2017 was another usual Monday grocery store day. I was driving, listening to Tom Petty Radio on Sirius XM. There’s just something about the winding roads and rolling Central Texas hills sprinkled with live oak, pecan and mesquite trees. Listening to songs like Runnin’ Down a Dream, Good to Be King, Learning to Fly, Time to Move On and my personal favorite Walls (No. 3). There it was, the breakthrough announcement of his passing. My breath quickly left me like a deflated soufflé, my heart felt like it lost a beat and my body just stopped like so many others did in that moment. I thought “this is a joke, this can’t be real, someone has made a huge mistake. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had just finished their 40th anniversary tour seven days ago. He was on top of his game, resting and relaxing at his home in California.”
Tears started to trickle down my face and I knew I was not the only one. There were many others in the parking lot with me, just sitting in their cars in shock. I was watching their mouths “What? Tom Petty, NO!” I could not believe the sadness that just washed over me, there was never going to be another Tom Petty or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers new music album ever again. Just like the Traveling Wilburys, when “Lefty Wilbury”- Roy Orbison passed suddenly after a heart attack their music was never the same. The magic was gone.
That’s Tom to me, pure musical magic. Maybe because Gainesville, Florida is not too far from where my Grandfather spent time becoming a man. Working hard at learning under water plumbing and welding that one day would lead him to a career in the Navy and a Bronze Medal for his underwater demolition skills in WWII. I loved his stories about being that master plumbers apprentice the hot thick air, the Southern sound of music from the early 1930’s and how Florida was a place all on its own. But he also said once you have lived there you needed to move on from there if you wanted to become someone. Tom Petty said the same thing to Warren Zane, his friend and autobiographer many years later.
I entered the grocery store, found my cart and slowly pushed it through the aisles, not a single thing was calling to me. I had wandered to about the middle of the store then turned down an isle and there was the display of White Lily Flour. Suddenly Miss Edna Lewis and her buttermilk biscuit recipe came bursting through my sad heart. If you don’t know who Edna Lewis is, please keep reading, if by chance you do know then enjoy a brief recap of her many accomplishments. Edna Lewis, born in 1916 was the Granddaughter of a Virginia emancipated slave who helped start the community of Freetown, Virginia. She may be known to some as the African-American Chef who was graced by the USPS with her own well-deserved stamp in the Forever Stamp Culinary Professionals Issue. To others she was an award winning culinary artist, the Mother of Southern Food. In 1995 the James Beard Foundation created an award for her, the distinguished Living Legend Award.
Kitchen Aid Cookbook Hall of Fame inducted her in 2003, Les Dames d’Escoffier named her Grande Dame in 1999. She grew up cooking food, simple food, real food with layers of rich flavor and love that translated into some of this world’s best and loved comfort food recipes. She became the Chef at Café Nicholson and there she erupted the culinary world with refined Southern Cooking! Tragedy happened, Edith broke her leg and for a bit of time she was sidelined from cooking. Then a meeting happened with Judith Jones, yes that Judith Jones the one who discovered Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Julia Child. Miss Edna was encouraged to turn over her hand-written pages of stories and recipes to create The Taste of Country Cooking, which in 1976 was published by Knopf publishing house.
So many of today’s Chefs have this very book on their shelves and refer to it often. Some culinary schools require their students to read it. Don’t believe me? Go find that book at your local library or bookstore then after reading the pages and working the recipes start looking at today’s comfort food recipes. There you will see the imprint she has made on cooks and chefs for over the past 40 years. She brought pan fried chicken and its simplicity to home cooks, light and flavorful buttermilk biscuits, fresh garden preserves and hands down her corn pudding recipe is the only one you will ever need. If you search the internet, please do yourself a favor skip all the “adapted from” recipes and stick to hers, the original. They are simply the best and so is her technique in my honest opinion.
White Lily Flour has been in production since 1883 with the company tag line of “When you bake with White Lily, you’re baking with history, tradition, and love.” If you have not baked with White Lily Flour you are in for a treat, it simply creates the lightest textured baked goods because it’s a soft red winter wheat. White Lily is the Southern staple for making biscuits, pie doughs and cakes. Well there it was, buttermilk biscuits the comfort food I needed and craved. Once I was home I gathered all the simple ingredients, salt, homemade leavening (* see recipe at the bottom of this post), Tenderflake Pure Bakers lard and real buttermilk. Now this is where I am a stickler, in no way can you make buttermilk from milk and lemon juice or vinegar, that simply is soured milk and not the same. Don’t do it! The powdered buttermilk, don’t use that either it’s considered a sin for this recipe. Your oven will be set at a very high temperature, please make sure your oven is clean or the smoke alarm will go off. That intense heat will create the perfect crisp golden outer layer, there’s a slight crunch when your teeth break through that buttered top biscuit only to be rewarded with the melt in your mouth tender leaf layers of the softest biscuit you will ever make if you don’t overwork the dough. I had my ingredients, my music playlist was queued, Tom Petty of course and I knew this Southern comfort food would set my sad musical heart on the path of healing.
While the biscuits baked away in the oven I thought about all “my Tom moments,” Tom Petty was there for my first kiss, my first heart break, my first swim team win and my first solo drive after earning my driver’s license. He was there in the hospital NICU while I sang “Learning to Fly” to my little preemie twins. Tom helped me through long baking days and nights at my café, he was there with us in our car as we drove to our new home in Texas. He is there with me every time I hook up my vintage trailer and hit the open road to find my adventures. He is there with me when I cook in our new home. Tom’s there when my kids sing out of tune and help sort laundry. He will also be there again with me as I dance at my son’s wedding in a few weeks. Tom Petty will forever be a story teller to me, his song writing has truly been that famous Dick Clark quote “Music is the soundtrack of our life.” My personal soundtrack happens to have Tom Petty, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Mudcrutch sprinkled through it more than any other musician I know and for that I am damn lucky and proud.
Miss Edna will be there too, to comfort my heart with her time-honored recipes, stories and accomplishments. Maybe I will share her delicious corn pudding recipe with my new neighbors, it is almost Thanksgiving time. Next year I will get over to Fredericksburg, Texas and gather a few pounds of fresh picked peaches to make her mind-blowing peach cobbler. Hopefully I have sparked an interest for you to discover her amazing talents. There is no other Chef I would be able to recommend for Southern Comfort food; Miss Edna Lewis is the Grande Dame.
Those two amazing legends have helped carve memories, traditions and launched dreams for so many. I absolutely urge you to buy these publications. The first, Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes. The second, The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis. The third, The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis & Scott Peacock. You will love them all, trust me.
RIP Tom Petty, you lived sir, you truly lived.
Edna Lewis’ Hot Crusty Buttermilk Biscuits
This recipe is from the book The Gift of Southern Cooking, it is simply the best and in no way, could anyone improve it. All credit goes to the Author and Creator Edna Lewis with thanks and praise!
5 cups White Lily Flour, sifted then measured
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, aluminum free or homemade
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (1/4 pound) packed lard, chilled
1¼ cups buttermilk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven to 450°F
Put the flour, baking powder, and salt in a mixing bowl, and whisk well to blend thoroughly. Add the lard, and, working quickly, coat it in flour and rub between your fingertips until approximately half the lard is finely blended and the other half remains in large pieces, about 1/2 inch in size. Pour in the buttermilk, and stir quickly just until the dough is blended and begins to mass.
Turn the dough immediately out onto a floured surface, and with floured hands knead briskly eight to ten times, until it becomes cohesive.
Gently flatten the dough with your hands into a disk of even thinness; then, using a floured rolling pin, roll it out to a uniform thickness of 1/2 inch. With a dinner fork dipped in flour, pierce the dough completely through at 1/2-inch intervals. Lightly flour a 2½ or 3-inch biscuit cutter and stamp out rounds, without twisting the cutter in the dough. Cut the biscuits from the dough as close together as you can, for maximum yield. Transfer them to a parchment-lined baking sheet, placing them so that they just barely kiss. Don’t re-roll the scraps. Just arrange them around the edge of the sheet, and bake them – cook’s treat.
Put the baking sheet immediately on the center rack of the preheated oven.
Bake 10-12 minutes, checking after 6 minutes or so, and turning the pan if needed for even baking. When the biscuits are golden brown, remove from the oven and brush the tops with the melted butter.
* Homemade baking powder Edna Lewis
¼ cup cream of tarter
2 tablespoons baking soda
Mix well and keep in an air tight container for up to 6 months.