I would hardly call myself Southern by any stretch of the imagination, although if you want to get technical, I do live below the Mason-Dixon line. Approximately six miles from the puny little sign that signals the official divide between the North and the South, but an important six miles, my friends. My first two years of college were at a private university so we had students from across the globe, but one of my closest friends was Abby, and she was nothing if not Southern. Abby was from Georgia and her accent gave her away the first three seconds I knew her, the way she pronounced words like Sprite and right and finished her sentences with "...bless her heart" was so incredibly endearing I could hardly stand it. But more than that was the way she talked about the South, like it really was everything you hear about in country music songs about tractors and mud and watermelon and summer nights and overalls. I was insanely jealous. Maddeningly jealous.
I love Maryland, don't get me wrong, but it can seems so blah sometimes. Sure, we have D.C., with it's crooked politicians and lying agenda-pushers, but that's technically the District, not Maryland. (And it's not something I'd boast about, anyhow.) A friend of mine from Alabama made a big stink about making it up for a visit so he could see the Mason-Dixon sign and show all his friends that he'd been "to the North," but I imagine he was sorely disappointed when I drove him up to State Line, PA only to find this is all there is. Sure, we've got lacrosse and crabs and mountains and beaches all within the same little state, but I'm hard pressed to think of something I feel particularly connected to.
Abby told me once that in Georgia they sell Maryland Fried Chicken, which I find baffling since no where in Maryland do we boast being specialists at frying chicken, let's leave that to the folks in Kentucky, alright? But I found myself wishing for more culture, deeper roots, a better grip on what it means to have a home-cooked meal. I can't think of biscuits without thinking about the South, and even though Abby and I have since lost touch, I think of her occasionally when I reach for Southern roots, like with these biscuits.
Sometimes when no one is home, I put on my apron and make biscuits, talking myself through the directions in my best (although very fake) Southern accent. I usually aim for the sweeter variety, the big fat fluffy biscuits that remind me of my Bob Evans waitressing days when I'd stuff two of their piping hot biscuits into my blue apron at the end of my shift, the sort that are best for sopping up sticky strawberry juice from shortcakes. But these are a little different, a little heartier. They don't swell up in your belly quite as much, as some biscuits do, and they have a slight gritty crunch from the addition of cornmeal. I love cornbread but it's always horribly dry, so I was a bit skeptical of these at first, but not to worry, the buttermilk keeps them moist and delicious.
I imagine if you skipped the black pepper and increased the sugar a teaspoon or two, you'd have something more like a shortcake biscuit, perfect for slathering with blackberry jam for breakfast, but I ate these straight out of the oven with a smear of soft butter and a glass of milk. They don't keep for very long once they're baked, so flash freeze the uncooked dough and add an additional minute or two to the baking time if you don't want all the biscuits at once.
I heard through a somewhat unreliable family grapevine that Robert E. Lee is my great-great-great-great-great-great-great uncle of sorts, but I'm not sure on that. I like to think it's true, so perhaps I am a little more Southern than I thought. I know, people - I'm reaching, work with me here.
The original recipe includes diced green onions front and center, but I didn't have any, nor do I particularly care for them, so I tossed them out. If you want to use them, add 1/2 cup finely chopped green onions along with the buttermilk, then follow the recipe as usual.
Buttermilk Biscuits with Black Pepper and Sea Salt
Adapted from Bon Appetit, November 2008
3/4 - 1 cup chilled buttermilk *
2 cups self-rising flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper plus additional for sprinkling
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, plus 1 tablespoon melted butter
Coarse sea salt