Hard-to-beat Biscuits

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

October 30, 1994|By ROB KASPER

Wye Mills -- Before eating Orrell's Maryland beaten biscuits, I had not been a fan of the genre. Most of the beaten biscuits I had tried to bite into had been tough enough to crack a molar. While the crust of Orrell's biscuits has what biscuit makers like to call a good "surface tension," the interior is tender.

They also have good flavor. Many beaten biscuits I have encountered seemed to rely on what was stuffed in them -- a slice of country ham, a mound of chicken salad, or a dollop of homemade jelly -- to carry the taste along. But Orrell's beaten biscuits tasted good when simply served at room temperature with a cup of coffee.

These strangely shaped morsels -- they look like golf balls with one flat side -- are historic. They have been made on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland since the days when Maryland was a British colony. The "beating" part of the process -- a technique of putting air in dough that doesn't contain yeast -- probably got passed down from Native Americans.

Now the clobbering of Orrell's dough is presided over by Ruth Orrell, who has been making the biscuits for more than 60 years. Now 92 years old, Mrs. Orrell is described by her daughter-in-law, Peggy Orrell, as an "authoritative thinker" who "keeps us stepping."

The biscuits, a mixture of flour, lard, salt, sugar, baking powder and water, are made Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings in an addition on the back of Mrs. Orrell's big yellow house. The house is in the middle of Wye Mills, at Routes 50 and 662, right on the line of Talbot and Queen Anne's counties.

Mrs. Orrell and her daughter-in-law are among several Orrell family members who co-own the biscuit-making operation. The business also has a manager, Trygve Lund, six women who shape the biscuits, a man who beats the dough, and two delivery men. The bags of 12 biscuits -- regular, cheese or honey -- are sold for about $2.50 a bag in stores throughout the Eastern Shore, in Graul's markets around Baltimore and Annapolis, and the Chevy Chase Supermarket. The business also mails biscuits at about $4 a bag, plus postage, to eaters around the United States.

The biscuit makers welcome visitors but ask that large groups give them some notice before showing up. School kids, a group Mrs. Orrell feels comfortable addressing, are frequent visitors. For 24 years she taught school, in the one-room Little Red School House in the nearby town of Longwoods. Back then she made biscuit dough before school started, and while she was teaching, other women would form the biscuits.

The afternoon I visited Orrell's, the biscuit-making had stopped. Mrs. Orrell led me through the kitchen, sold me a bag of biscuits and then hunted around until she found an old "biscuit beater," a hammer that was once used to pound the dough.

These days the dough is pounded by a custom-made stainless-steel device that looks like a punch-packing pasta maker. The crew of "biscuit ladies" form the dough into the traditional lumps, and the biscuits are baked at about 500 degrees for about 20 minutes. Over the years various machines have attempted to shape the biscuits, but none, according to Peggy Orrell, has done the job as well as the biscuit ladies.

I had arrived at Orrell's (about 70 miles east of Baltimore) late in the afternoon. Mrs. Orrell and her daughter-in-law were about to leave. After giving me the tour, Mrs. Orrell walked me out the door and offered me some yellow tomatoes she had grown in her garden. I was touched by the gesture. Later, Peggy Orrell told me that her mother-in-law had been trying to get rid of those

tomatoes for days.

Left on my own, I took in the pleasant small-town sights. There was the 400-year-old Wye Oak, the largest white oak in the United States. Its crown was almost higher than the tops of the grain bins that stood on the grounds of the nearby grain mill. Down the road was the Old Wye Episcopal Church, built in 1721 with funds that came in part from the sale of a gift of 60,000 pounds of tobacco.

There was a small grocery store and a post office. In the middle of town a stream had been dammed as it meandered toward the Wye River, forming a picturesque lake. According to a couple of fellows who worked at a nearby Department of Natural Resources outpost, the lake was full of perch and crappie. I was sorry I did not have my pole. I ate a few biscuits as I walked around the lake and carried the rest back to Baltimore.

Beaten biscuits, I learned, do not go "stale." Instead they "dry up," a process that takes about 10 days. Even then the biscuits are said to have several culinary lives left. They can be pulverized in a food processor and put in a meatloaf or used as breading for pork chops or chicken. Peggy Orrell said her mother-in-law makes pancakes by mixing a cup of the ground-up biscuit crumbs with an egg, milk, oil and baking powder. "They are very good pancakes," she said.

I did not make pancakes with leftover beaten biscuits because there were no leftovers. Instead, the next morning I ate a day-old biscuit and enjoyed its doughy flavor with a cup of black coffee. Then I wrapped two more biscuits in a paper towel and warmed them for about 15 seconds in the microwave, and topped them with butter. Buttered beaten biscuits for breakfast. Nothing better.

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