Monday, June 28, 2010

Biscuits, Bach and Ethnography

Marion Post Wolcott, Biscuit Lady (A member of the Wilkins family making biscuits on cornhusking day, Tallyho, NC, 1939 . This activity may also be called husking, shucking or snapping in various regions. (See Mamie J. Meredith [University of Nebraska], "Cornhusking and Other Terms," American Speech, The American Dialect Society

Back in the eighties, when our national endowments, the Smithsonian, and the American Folklife Center gladly funded ethnographic field research, I spent a week in March on the Savannah River, down near Lavonia, SC.

My assignment was to document the architecture
and layout of the early 19th century Hutchison farm threatened by inundation as the U. S. Corps of Engineers prepared to build a dam. The farm was beautiful and boasted an original log dogtrot house of magnificent proportions.

Measuring, sketching and photographing occupied my day but the week was most memorable for Katie Hutchison's fried eggs, side meat and biscuits each morning, baked in an old wood-burning stove with a broken oven door hinge, which wast held in place by a chunk of stove wood..

Glory but those biscuits were fine and sweet, and there is no reason why they shouldn't. Plain country biscuits (with white or red eye gravy) have been part of the culture of the Southeastern United States for as long as there has been milled flour.

Southern writers have often referred to biscuits. From Twain to Faulkner, from John Grisham (The Last Juror, 2004) to Pat Conroy to Kathy Reich, biscuits play major roles. Check out Conroy's 2009 novel, South of Broad.

Indeed,one might say that the South is identified with and by its biscuits. Which makes it all the more reasonable, appropriate and just that our local (North Carolina) classical music station should program a show entitled, "Biscuits and Bach" every Sunday morning from 7 to 11:00AM . The music is planned and played by Rachel Stewert
FYI: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) A contemporary of painter Jean Baptiste Simeon Cardin and our first president, George Washington. Bach is acknowledged as having Influenced every composer from Brahms to Brubeck. Checkout the story at

Rachel Stewert, WDAV-FM

Below: The master of still life painting, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin's (Paris, 1699-1779) A Glass of Water and a Coffee Pot (1760). Sorry, no biscuits.

Now, as far as I know, Bach wrote but one musical piece about cuisine and that was his secular Kaffee Kontata BWV211 (1730), a hilarious narrative about a young lady who would marry only if her future husband will allow her to continue her coffee addiction. It was performed 1732-34 at Zimmerman's Coffee House in Leipzig.

End of the story:

As one might expect, the mighty Corps of Engineers built their dam and the river backed up to form Lake Hartwell for boaters and such. But the Hutchison farm escaped unscathed and I had the good fortune to visit again in 2007. That old stove is still there but both Katie and her brother Henry passed on years ago.

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