There’s nothing better than biscuits straight from the oven. I’ve been known to drive 600 miles for a good biscuit (and, I suppose, some family time). Southerners love to argue about what makes a good biscuit. Bill Neal is one authority (Thanks, prospero’s kitchen!) and here is another. However, most agree that the secret to exceptional biscuits is flour, and more specifically, White Lily flour, which has been milled in Knoxville, Tennessee, since 1883.
Bad news for biscuit lovers everywhere. Last year, Smuckers bought White Lily and decided to move milling operations to Illinois. Bakers, southern and otherwise, noticed a difference between the Knoxville-milled flour and the Midwest-milled flour right away. From the New York Times:
Zoellyn Smith, who worked in both quality control and research and development at the Knoxville plant, accurately identified the new product before she began to bake. Sample A, the new product, had “a grayish color” and made a “dense and chewy” cake, while Sample B, the old, made for silky, rather than stiff, dough and a “light and airy” cake.
(photo from NYT)
There are a few things that make White Lily flour different from other flours. One is, as Fred Sauceman says below, terroir, or loosely, the importance of place.
No test was necessary for Fred W. Sauceman, author of a series of books called “The Place Setting: Timeless Tastes of the Mountain South, From Bright Hope to Frog Level,” who said White Lily should stay in Knoxville. “It’s kind of like the use of the word terroir when you’re talking about wine,” he said. “It means something to have been made in the exact same spot for 125 years, and it’s unconscionable not to respect that.”
Traditionally southern flour was made from the soft red winter wheat that grew in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee. This wheat is low in protein, which means it absorbs less liquid than higher-protein northern wheat. This makes the biscuits light and fluffy.
I love that we can use the word terroir when discussing flour. If, as the New York Times article suggests, the South became famous for its biscuits and pies rather than yeasted breads because of the soft red winter wheat, then terroir is a strong factor. White Lily flour is culturally, physically, and economically tied to Knoxville and the South.
It may be cheaper for Smuckers to mill White Lily flour in its own northern mills, but along with cheapening production, Smuckers is cheapening the product. Fight for good biscuits. Respect the terroir of your food. Preserve your local food traditions. If you are new to an area, learn its local cuisine, but don’t forget where you come from either.
Learn about the food culture around you. Then tell your friends, or better yet, cook for them.