The biscuit beating goes on

November 26, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WYE MILLS -- In a yellow house in this tiny Eastern Shore town, six women gather around a long, rectangular table to make biscuits the old-fashioned way. Not old-fashioned as in the way your mother made biscuits. Old-fashioned as in 300 years ago, when yeast and other leavening agents were rare and baking powder hadn't been invented yet.

To get the dough to rise, bakers beat air into it with the handle of a hammer or an ax. Now a machine does the work, but little else has changed in the way Maryland beaten biscuits are made.

Today only one factory still makes the small, round biscuits: Orrell's Maryland Beaten Biscuits, which operates from this 100-year-old house with a wooden shingle out front.

To see the biscuits being made, it's best to arrive around 7 a.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when the apron-clad women roll and shape golf-ball-sized lumps of dough.

Everyone has a different technique. Betty Short folds the dough in on itself several times before rolling it. Mary Holtzclaw prefers a sideways roll and pat, and Marie Buckle uses more of a squeezing motion. But all the techniques result in the same smooth, round shape.

The biscuits then are placed on a cookie sheet, stamped with a small cross within an oval and baked until they are toasty-brown on top. As the women work, they talk, laugh, sip coffee. And when it's time for a midmorning snack, some break out little boxes of cereal. After years, even decades on the job, a few are understandably sick of eating biscuits.

These days, when so much food is made in factories and laden with chemicals, there's comfort in finding a food that's actually made in a house, by hand, with the most basic of ingredients.

Traditionally, beaten biscuits were made of nothing but flour, lard, water, sugar and salt.

In 1935, when Ruth Orrell, a schoolteacher in need of some extra cash, converted a part of her family home into a biscuit factory, she changed the traditional beaten-biscuit recipe a smidge, adding a single teaspoon of baking powder per 25 pounds of flour. This surely comes to about two grains per biscuit, and is clearly not enough to actually make the dough rise.

For years she beat the dough with the handle of a hammer. Then in 1947, a man named Olin Tull invented a beating machine for the company. The noisy contraption, which adds air to the flour with a rotating drum, is still used today. However, the flat-ended hammer that once was used is in a hallway on the block of wood where the dough was pounded. Tull did more than save Orrell's son, Dick, from a lifetime of beating biscuits by hand. Tull also happened to have a daughter named Peggy, whom Dick would later marry. Dick and Peggy now live in a house next to the biscuit factory, and have been running the business since before Ruth Orrell passed away about two years ago, at the age of 98.

Now, their daughter, Betsy Skinner, who lives in nearby Chestertown, is taking over. And another daughter, Bonnie Reichert, who lives in New Hampshire, runs the Web site with her husband, Lewis.

As nostalgia grows for traditional foods still made the old-fashioned way, beaten biscuits are more popular than ever. Sales have grown from about 6,000 a week when the company started to 18,000 a week today.

Interest in the tiny company spiked about two years ago when the Food Network put beaten biscuits on its Food Finds show. Orders flooded in, prompting the Orrell family to start a Web site (www.beatenbiscuits.com), which now accepts orders from all over the world.

The holiday season is the busiest time for the factory. During Christmas week, the company will make 36,000 biscuits.

Orrell's biscuits are sold at Eddie's of Roland Park in Baltimore and Graul's in Annapolis, as well as many small markets on the Eastern Shore. They are packaged a dozen to a bag, which sells for $3.50. They don't have preservatives, but they will stay fresh for a week or two in a container, longer if frozen.

Over the years, several varieties have been added, including cheese, cayenne pepper-cheese, and honey. About three years ago, a trail biscuit was created in response to a customer request. This biscuit is made with the same dough, but is cut instead of beaten and shaped, so it takes up less room in a backpack. And recently, the company began selling the crumbs, which are good for coating fried oysters, topping casseroles, even making pancakes.

Keeping the business going is more a labor of love than a shrewd financial move. Over the years, Dick Orrell has struggled to find the best flour and lard for the biscuits, and he's toyed with the idea of finding machines to do the work of the six aproned ladies. He found the flour and lard, but could not stomach paying millions of dollars for a biscuit-shaping machine.

So why do the Orrells bother keeping alive a tradition that was born of a hardship that doesn't exist anymore? Peggy Orrell says one reason the family continues the business is in memory of Dick's mother, Ruth. "Because of his mother, is really the biggest reason we want to keep it going," she says.

The other reason is that the biscuits are delicious, rich and yet surprisingly light, with a crackly exterior and a dense, tender interior. " ... Many, many of our customers request that we keep going as long as we can," Peggy Orrell says.

And if the Orrells didn't make them, nobody would.

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