The Biscuit Chronicles
When she first started teaching school, my mother worked in a small town in West Virginia. At that time the town had no hotels, only boarding houses. After living in her rented room at Sunset Terrace for a while she wondered if residents of most of the other boarding houses got along as well as in the one in which she lived. This situation was to change, however, at a later time.
A feature of most meals at Sunset Terrace was a large platter of biscuits. At times the platter held rolls or cornbread and, of course, sliced bread for sandwiches. Hettie, the cook, had become famous for her large cloud, scratch biscuits. No one in town made or ate better.
When finding other breads served, several residents were sure to mention that biscuits were far better than the current fare although cornbread was better with soup and rolls with pot roast according to some. There was no complaint in such discussions as Hettie also made the best cornbread and yeast rolls anywhere around.
As is now well-known vernacular, the residents referred to their room and board as “three hots and a cot”. All meals were served promptly at their appointed hour: Breakfast at 6:00 a.m., Lunch (weekends and holidays only) at Noon, and Dinner at 7:00 p.m. If one was going to be absent from the table, or late to a meal, past a half-hour after serving time, the meal in question would have to be gotten elsewhere or a request could be made of Hettie to put up a plate. Such plate would be covered, with a name attached to it, and placed in the “ice box” for the boarder to reheat in the oven. If Hettie was still in the kitchen during the layover of a meal then she’d offer to do the reheating while she was doing the dishes and the boarder would sit at the kitchen table in wait. Hettie would do all that was asked of her and more but she didn’t want anyone “messing in her kitchen”. She was the master of her domain and on one ever missed this point.
Hettie was what was known as a jewel. Partaking of a first meal at her table made this fact very evident and created in the diner the desire to be back soon for another repast. The comment of her being a jewel was often made to the house owner, Miz James.
Other boarding house owners were always trying to hire her away but Hettie was loyal; plus, to make sure of that loyalty, Miz James paid more than the other kitchens and was generous with food Hettie was allowed to take home as well as gifts at appointed times. Hettie’s comment could often be heard, “If all stays the same, mind you, and also continues to get better, I will stay with Miz James until I retire and I’m not planning on that for a long, long time.” Obviously this statement made everyone affected very happy. Hettie was quite the queen of the kitchens in town.
Food was most assuredly the common denominator at Sunset Terrace with most boarders sharing the dining table more than any other type of co-mingling. This tended to make meals something like social occasions.
On the other hand, meals could be “icy” or “hot”. If either of these degrees defined the nature of those at the table more than a little, Miz James would re-chart the directions or referee as smoothly as possible.
Unfortunately, a few months after my mother became a resident of Sunset Terrace, the atmosphere changed. A new border, Mr. Boswell, would hold forth at table with loudly spoken radical views, making diners uncomfortable and stunting conversation. Mr. Boswell seemed happy to have more and more of his say. Most of what came out of his mouth rankled everyone. This change of events made all unhappy including Miz James as no one missed the tightening of her lips or the furrows deepening between her brows.
The man was uncouth and lacking in table manners. Frequently he knocked over the salt shaker leaving it on its side. He spilled sugar every time he spooned some from the bowl and he would use a butter knife and lay it down, soiling the tablecloth. He talked with his mouth full, spraying food particles with every breath and he took the last of most dishes without the courtesy of asking any others whether they wanted any or all of the remains.
Soon Mr. Boswell began a habit that disgusted the others more than usual. As he would draw his chair up to the table, he would put a finger into his mouth to moisten it and then would place it on a number of biscuits saying, “This is mine, this is mine. This is mine.”
He never claimed just one biscuit in this manner but at least three. Being a group of polite Southern people, the boarders didn’t know quite how to handle the situation. They moaned about it among themselves in low tones with much grim faces and much head shaking.
Then one morning at breakfast this obnoxious boarder performed his usual ritual of licking a finger and placing it on the biscuits with his “This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.” But on this day my mother just couldn’t stand his behavior any longer and right after the last “mine” rang out she licked her own finger and touched the same three biscuits declaring, “You can have it, you can have it, you can have it.”
At first there was dead silence. Then everyone around the table roared with laughter except for Mr. Boswell. He just stared at her in awe. The problem never surfaced again. Another benefit at meals was that he was much quieter and the others enjoyed conversing as they had before his arrival. Therefore, everyone was happier.
Not much time elapsed before Mr. Boswell left for good. In the early days of his absence some commented that Hettie must have changed her biscuit recipe as they were fluffier and sweeter than ever before. Overhearing this, Hettie smiled to herself as she knew that she made them just the same as always.