Southerners are often said to be natural-born storytellers, and it’s certainly true that some of America’s most interesting and prolific novelists have been from the South. Though there’s a lot of speculation about why, I think it simply comes down this: there’s just so much fodder for storytelling down here. Our region has more odd characters per square inch than anywhere else in the world.
What’s more, we’re not just proud of these characters; we celebrate them. One of the nicest compliments any Southerner can pay another is that he or she is “eccentric.”
Of all the eccentrics that have passed through my own life, one of the most colorful and interesting of all was Miss Laurie LeGrand. Originally from Eufaula, Alabama, Laurie retired from a life of government work in Washington to an elegant but down-at-heels Victorian townhouse in downtown Savannah, which remained under perpetual restoration until the day she died.
Laurie kept our neighborhood lively by rescuing and renovating derelict houses (to the detriment of her own home’s progress), by loudly expressing her singular views on politics, the folly of legislated morality and by a passion for cooking that was as robust as her appetite was small.
Laurie’s house, filled with a jumble of family furniture and a lifetime of memorabilia, was a perfect reflection of all that, and could pretty much be summed up by her dining room table. Covered with crisp white linen and beautifully laid with heirloom silver and china, it was perpetually decorated for St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas—all at once.
But it wasn’t mere landscape that set that table apart and so thoroughly captured Laurie’s eccentricity, but the food. While delicious, Laurie’s cooking was, like her, definitely off the beaten path. On the rare occasion that she entertained, guests were as likely to get Moroccan chicken, fragrant with preserved lemons and cinnamon, as we were an elegant French fricassee or homey, Southern-style pan-fried chicken from an iron skillet.
Her most singular food eccentricity was that she considered bacon fat a necessary food group. Not bacon, mind: just its rendered fat. Though well past seventy (how far past she never admitted) she still had the figure of a cover model, and yet bacon drippings were to her what butter is to Paula. We often suspected that she slathered the stuff on her breakfast toast.
Come to think of it, maybe that was what made her cooking so wonderful.
One of Laurie’s specialties was a thin, flaky little biscuit made with chilled bacon drippings instead of shortening. Accompanying practically every meal, those tender yet crisp little morsels all but melted in your mouth and were utterly irresistible. She promised to teach me to make them, but died before that ever happened, so what follows is my own version, based on taste memories. For extra flavor and kick, I sometimes sprinkle the dough with coarsely ground pepper when I’m doing the pat-and-fold.
Laurie’s Bacon Biscuits
Makes about 12-16
2 cups Southern soft-wheat flour, pastry flour, or unbleached all-purpose flour
1 scant teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons chilled bacon drippings
½-to-2/3 cup whole milk
Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 450° F. Whisk or sift together the flour, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut in the bacon fat with a pastry blender, fork, or two knives until it resembles damp, coarse meal with occasional lumps no larger than very small peas.
Make a well in the center and pour in half a cup of milk. Mix with as few strokes as possible until the dough clumps together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk (if needed) by spoonfuls until it is no longer crumbly.
Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and pat out ½-inch thick. Fold it in half and pat out ½-inch thick, fold again, and repeat twice more.
Lightly flour the surface once more and roll or pat the dough out about ¼-inch thick. Using 1½-inch-diameter biscuit cutter dipped in flour before each cut, cut the dough straight down, without twisting the cutter, into 12 biscuits, transferring them to an ungreased baking sheet spaced about half an inch apart.
The scraps can be reworked with care: gather into a lump and lightly fold and pat flat about three times or until they just hold together, then pat flat and cut as above. Bake the biscuits until golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes, and serve piping hot.
Notes: One slice of thick-cut bacon should yield about a tablespoon of rendered fat. Store the drippings for up to 4 weeks, well sealed, in the refrigerator, or for up to 3 months in the freezer.