Making biscuits and gravy is a rite of passage in the extended Wagner clan of West Virginia. That treasured family ritual involves a heaping amount of bacon grease with no regrets.
My Uncle Mike grew up in Longacre, West Virginia, a poor coal-mining town, with a big pack of siblings. Now, Uncle Mike and Aunt Tawee live in northern California near Sacramento. They flew to Kansas City in July, where my sister Mary, her family and I drove with them to the Wagner family reunion. We crossed Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky until we arrived at Watoga State Park in Marlinton, West Virginia.
We joined an extended Wagner clan of brothers, sisters, spouses, kids, grand-kids and cousins. They told stories, laughed, lovingly harassed each other and, most importantly, prepared hearty home-style food each day. Rick, one of Mike’s brothers and an excellent cook, taught the Kansas City–California contingent how to properly make biscuits and gravy like Mom Wagner (RIP) used to make.
The biscuit recipe is a straightforward blend of flour, baking powder, baking soda, butter and buttermilk. Once the dough is formed, Rick rolled the dough flat on a flour-dusted surface. Then he brought out the biscuit cutter, a key to the rite of passage.
In a deep, booming voice, Rick told the kids, grandkids, flatlanders and, really, anyone within earshot, about the heritage of the biscuit cutter. He held up a round 16-ounce tin can that was flimsier than cans today. The biscuit cutter in Rick’s hand dated back to the 1960s. His deceased father originally made it from an evaporated milk can. Decades ago, the ends were soldered onto the round can. His father held one end of the empty can over the stove fire until it heated up enough to pop the end off. Easy as pie, Mom Wagner had a biscuit cutter. The heirloom in Rick’s hand has cut hundreds of big, fat biscuits over the years.
Big Roger, the eldest of the siblings, the shortest in height and perhaps the biggest personality in the family, reminded everyone that he got to cut the first biscuit by rights. After he exercised his right, fellow siblings took their turns cutting and passing the can to the next person in line. The ritual extended from generation to generation, down to the youngest in the room and even us flatlanders, connecting everyone to Wagner family history and tradition.
Once cut, the doughy biscuits were laid on sheet pan coated with bacon grease. Then, we generously dabbed bacon grease on top of each biscuit, wide as a catfish head, for extra flavor. That glistening grease also helped those precious biscuits turn golden brown as they baked.
We weren’t done with the bacon grease yet. Earlier, Mary, Rick and Little Roger took turns cooking bacon and sausage in iron skillets. Grease from each batch formed a shallow puddle in each skillet. That grease would transform into bacon and chipped beef gravy and sausage gravy. Rick showed us how to heat up the grease to just the right temperature, add flour to form a loose, greasy base, let it heat more until it browned and began to smoke, add more flour to form a thick roux, stirring all the while with a whisk to get the bacon or sausage leavings worked in, until it was time to add evaporated milk (for richness, because it was sorely lacking, right?), stir more, let reduce, thicken and achieve the ultimate balance of thick, creamy, rich, soul-affirming gravy. Bits of bacon, chipped beef, black pepper and a touch of salt went into one batch; ground pieces of sausage added texture and flavor to the other.
When the golden biscuits emerged from the oven, they were piled high on plates. Big Roger said grace in his sweet, rambling West Virginia accent to thank the cooks, family and the grace of God – and bless the dishwasher! Biscuits were quickly divvied up like bags of money among thieves after a heist. Hungry family members ladled gravy on top, added bacon and/or sausage and spooned June apples on the side.
As the name suggests, June apples are gathered that month, cooked into applesauce and saved to eat throughout the year. A slightly tart variety, June apples make a perfect light bite to offset gut-busting biscuits, gravy and trimmings.
Naturally, by rights and loud vocal declaration, Big Roger got the pone. The “pone” is the leftover scrap of biscuit dough after the cutting is done. Those scraps are formed into one big mound and baked. Double the size of a regular biscuit with more crust, the pone is highly sought-after but always wound up on Big Roger’s plate.
Biscuit making became biscuit eating. We ate. We ate second helpings, if we could help it. We ate as family, by blood and bacon grease.