There has been a lot of conversation about soul food lately. A school system in Denver is in trouble for trying to honor Dr. Martin Luther King by serving fried chicken and collards. I guess if they had offered watermelon the whole staff would have been shot.

The Dew has featured a few tasty stories about grits and other southern delicacies, most of them waxing poetic about not forgotten old times when the living was easy and cooking took all day. Much of what is defined today as soul food was originally just food for those of us who grew up poor in the South. I would like to weigh in.

First my credentials; I was born in a house in River Bend, Alabama, the first of four children. My youngest brother, who came along seven years after I did, was the first of us to actually enter this world somewhere other than my parents’ bedroom. He was born in the hospital in Tuscaloosa.

My first four years and my tenth year were spent in River Bend, as country a place as anyone can imagine. The years in between were spent in the booming metropolis of Centreville, the county seat of the poorest county in Alabama, and maybe the only place where the Baptists and bootleggers continue to keep all liquor sales illegal.

The only black person I saw regularly was Myrtle Lee Fitts, the lady who cleaned our house, washed our clothes, and cooked the meals while both my parents worked. She also whipped our butts when necessary, but that is another story. Other than tasting a little better, her meals were identical to those my mother made. And my grandmother. We didn’t know we were making political statements.

I have eaten squirrel, rabbit, and quail, but not possum. We weren’t the Beverly Hillbillies. Vienna sausage and potted meat were staples when we traveled but no one tried to force sardines on us. Fried chicken and greens were regular visitors to our table, along with black-eyed peas and cornbread. Grits, homemade biscuits, and gravy were available at breakfast.

As the oldest of four kids with two working parents I learned to cook early on. I could make cat head biscuits from scratch before I reached puberty. Not a big deal, lots of people can do it. Unfortunately it is a royal pain in the backside for me.

A few years back someone introduced me to Pillsbury frozen biscuits. I was not too excited about trying them at first but discovered they are good enough to outweigh having to go to the trouble of mixing dough.

I am also fond of quick grits; not instant mind you, but the ones that take a couple of minutes to cook and don’t require having the Village Idiot standing around for twenty minutes stirring. Once again, not as good as the original, but good enough to make them worth the saved effort.

Changing policy about grits and biscuits worked for me. Ribs, banana pudding, and true love are still products of patience, and there are no short cuts.

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Mike Cox

Mike Cox

Mike Cox currently writes a weekly column in South Carolina for the Columbia Star called "It's Not a Criticism, It's an Observation." He is trying to grow old as gracefully as possible without condemning the current generation in charge to doom. Each day this task gets harder as the overwhelming evidence mounts. He currently has two published books; Finding Daddy Cox, and October Saturdays. His columns have won three South Carolina Press Association awards since 2003. Mike has three sons and two grandchildren and lives in Irmo, Sc, just outside of Columbia.

22 Comments
  1. When canned biscuits became available in the 50’s my Mother quit making “cat heads”. I was the youngest of 5 (9 years younger), and when the others were talking about how good Mother’s biscuits were and I said that she did not know how to cook them, they got all mad at me. We finally figured out that since, I was the only one left at home, the canned biscuits were a lot less trouble and she quit making them from “scratch”. Same with the quick grits. LOL!

  2. I have fond memories of canned biscuits; my father couldn’t cook any other kind. If I visited him, we had canned biscuits, salt pork fried like bacon, and cheese. But they are a poor substitue for cat head biscuits. The frozen ones are at least close.

  3. Okay, this Yankee gives. What are cat head biscuits? My grandmother used to make baking powder biscuits in West Virginia, but I do understand that WVA has not always been considered a Southern State.

    And I think it is absurd that the school system in Denver couldn’t serve fried chicken and collard greens for MLK day. What if they decided to serve spaghetti to honor Frank Sinatra. Would the PC police come knocking again?

  4. Biscuits as big and fluffy as a “Cat’s head” 8-)

  5. Another difference is when canned biscuits set for a while you can use them as bricks. The homade biscuits stay soft inside if they lasted long enough to get cold.

  6. Anyone ever have the old biscuits in a “twist” paper-tube container pop open on their own?

  7. Tom those things are hard to get off the ceiling!!

  8. We always called the pressurised bics -Whop bisuits because you had to whop them on the counter to open the thing. had a long disussion with my son today about grits. I explained to him that certain persons have a problem with grits, but will happily eat them if you call it polenta. And they will. He thought it was hysterical and took the yellow grits home to Tampa and will now feed them to his friends under the more PC name. It’s really just boiled cornmeal whatever anyone wants to call it. (and yes, I make the worst bics on the planet if I have to do it the traditional way)

  9. Frank Povah

    And What, May I Ask, Is Wrong With Sardines, Mr Cox? (Apart from the fact that they no longer can them in their own oil – I presume the latter is now sold in capsule form as “Heart-healthy Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acid”.)

  10. The mention of “yellow grits” brings me back. My northern grandfather made yellow grits, but he called it “mush.” He cooked and stirred, poured the mush into a loaf pan and let it harden over night. In the morning he sliced the mush, fried it and served it to us with butter. Nothing more nutritionally useless, nothing more wonderful.

    Once grown up I often tried to re-create my grandfather’s recipe, couldn’t make it work, but by then there was pre-packaged mush in a tube at the store, just $1.50. Not as good as grandfather’s, not by a country mile. Then the pre-packaged mush in a tube turned up at the store as “polenta” and shoppers could have this convenient staple so popular in Italy for just $3.50! You gotta love marketing.

    I eventually discovered that the dry corn meal I used to recreate my grandfather’s simple recipe was too fine. Changed the corn meal to something more like actual grits — yellow — and there it was! Mush! Still nutritionally suspect, but so delicious. Fortunately, I also figured out how to bake mush slices (hello convection oven), so no frying, making it less messy to prepare, but still crispy good, still served with butter.

    And finally — if someone served me a “cat head biscuit,” that thing would sit on the far edge of my plate for a long, long time. I’ve NEVER heard that term and the imagery (the marketing)…yikes!

  11. Frank, I was never a fan of sardines; something about eating bones and all. Then a former workmate subjected me to sardines, orange juice, and chocolate milk for lunch several days in a row. I will never be able to even consider them now.

    And Meg, if you can resist a freshly made, hot, cat head biscuit dripping with butter, you might as well turn your visa in and head north of the MD line forever.

  12. Mike — I could never resist a hot biscuit dripping with butter (the Irish-German combo in me doesn’t allow for passing on baked goods or butter, ever), but the cat head imagery? Never heard of it until this morning, and thanks to that, I don’t know if I’ll ever fully enjoy a biscuit again.

    Okay. Really? I will.

    As to finding my way north of the Mason-Dixon line…I’ve been trying to move north for DECADES! (Damn family.) We’re getting close, though. As they say, if you can’t stand the heat, what the hell are you doing in South Florida!?! — Regards

  13. Quick grits are like instant grits and instant coffee – an abomination before the Lord. There oughta be a law.
    I have learned when I travel amongst the Yankees to ask the waitress the source of the grits before ordering. Many places North and East of Kentucky use instant grits.

  14. Mike have you noticed when comments are made on an article about southern cultures and pass eccentrics of the south the outside “ya-hoos” show their ?knowledge?.
    Mike I imagine you haven’t heard that word as a noun in a while outside the internet company. It did take me a while to use YaHoo because of what the word implied when it was used in the south. Ha!

  15. Awww, Meg, the “Cat Head” imagery goes away as soon as the biscuits melts in your mouth and becomes a taste sensation. It’s ambrosia for the soul. Some butter, “black strap” molasses, (or “soppin syrup”), and a “cat head” biscuit, a side of yellow grits, a couple of “over easy” fried eggs – ain’t nothin’ better 8-).

    @ C Smith – I had the same problem with YaHoo 8-).

    @ Johnny – Amen and Amen!!

    You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t get the country out of the boy! When it comes to food, I am country!

  16. My Mama was a Yankee girl so we rarely (never) had biscuits or grits when I was growing up. Bu my husband (like my father) was a Southern boy and loved biscuits. What we called cat-head was when we gathered up what was left of the biicuit dough after cutting the biscuits, and made one big-boy biscuit. Now, THAT was the cathead everybody vied for.

  17. The first time I tried to make biscuits from scratch, I was about 12. My mother had gone back to school at night, and it was my job to pull together the supper she had started for us. For some reason, I decided to embellish the meal with homemade biscuits.

    When finished baking, they had the consistency of silver dollars. When my dad ding-dinged his on the edge of his plate, I decided that biscuit making was outside the realm of my possibilities. Thank goodness for Pillsbury Frozen. They are delicious and better than many made from scratch.

  18. @ Johnny – Anything “instant” is an abomination! We buy fresh local grits from the farmers at our tailgate markets. There’s nothing that compares with them!

    @ J. Morgan Willis – Every time I bake our whole wheat variation of your biscuit recipe, people love them, particularly topped with sorghum or apple butter along with grits and fresh eggs.

    It’s a shame seeing old favorite regional foods, becoming “not bad” instant products manufactured by divisions of PepsiCo & General Mills.

  19. Urban Reader: Everyone should know how to make a real bread product of some sort. Something NOT from a tube. I won’t pretend to know how to make real Southern Biscuits, but the following is lovely on the plate and palate, and is quick to prepare. More like drop biscuits, actually. Maybe you’ll give it a try. Goes like this:

    Preheat the oven to 450-degrees, for real. In a large bowl whisk to combine:
    1 cup all-purpose flour
    1 tsp sugar
    1/2 tsp double-acting baking powder
    1/4 tsp salt

    To that add 3/4 cup cold whipping cream

    Using a wide wooden spatula or large metal spoon, mix until the dough is formed, pressing the dough against the sides of the bowl to knead as you stir.

    When the liquid is fully incorporated and the dough holds together, use your hands to knead for about thirty seconds. Form the dough into a 3/4″ disc. I do it right in the bowl and then transfer it to a heavy or well-seasoned cast iron pan. I use a metal scraper to cut the dough nto sections. If you want, lightly brush the tops with milk.

    Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until golden brown on top. Makes about four to six servings. The above is a sea-level recipe. If you live at a high altitude, adjustments to the baking powder and cooking time will be necessary. They don’t keep very well, so best to eat’em while they’re hot. Enjoy!

  20. Mandy Richburg Rivers

    I know I’m a little behind reading this but I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the post and the comments. We called them cat-heads too and my Aunt June’s ability to cook them perfectly has reserved her a special place in heaven right next to Jesus. I hate to admit it, but I’m not too good at it… my go-to is cornbread. I can make me some cornbread.

    And SHYEEEEAHHH to the sardines! I spent my weekends and summer days fishing the Congaree River growing up. I always had some combination of the following with me: sardines (in oil), Vienna sausages, Lance crackers and Debbie cakes.

    I have 3 kids so I’ve figured out that instant grits are actually just fine if you increase the water a bit and double or triple the cooking time.

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