IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT BISCUIT
AT KNOXVILLE’S INTERNATIONAL BISCUIT FESTIVAL
Early in the morning, in the middle of May, start walking from Market Square in Knoxville, Tennessee, and you’ll know instantly that you are at the International Biscuit Festival. The aroma of baking biscuits floats in the air like clouds, infusing your surroundings to the point you may wonder if you are a biscuit yourself. After all, everything else seems to be. Biscuit Boulevard takes you past dozens of vendors with cheese biscuits, angel biscuits, pimento biscuits, pepper biscuits, and just plain wonderful biscuits.
What started as a modest festival four years ago quickly has exploded to biscuit mania. The festival now attracts over 30,000 people. When I was there this time last year, Callie’s Charleston Biscuits had a crowd surrounding their booth that was impossible to move past. Stands offered jellies and honey and anything else good on a biscuit.
In the judging tent, arguments flew among the attendees about the best kind of flour, milk, and fat required to produce the lightest, most tender, tastiest biscuits. White Lily was a contender but so was Midland Mills. Cream, buttermilk, sweet milk, or a combination thereof or forget milk altogether and use Coca-Cola or ginger ale. Leaf lard, lard, Crisco, or other shortening, butter or a combination thereof or, horrors, oleo margarine—all the options fought it out for flavor and lightness superiority.
Contestants raved about how to make a biscuit different—red peppers or jalapenos, pimento cheese, bacon pieces, herbs, sugar, sorghum, or honey. Toppings, fillings, and accompaniments were in abundance—some biscuits were bathed in butter, others held crisp bacon, country ham, fried country sausage or cheese, fried eggs, poached eggs—even scrambled eggs tantalized and seduced the judges. Purists happily used butter, sorghum syrup, and/or honey to drench the biscuits, causing them to melt in the mouth. Sawmill gravy, sausage gravy, red eye gravy, tomato gravy, and some oddities like kielbasa in a tomato sauce were available for those who like to sop up.
What makes a biscuit so memorable? That’s personal for all of us, largely dependent on what we ate when we grew up. It’s more than the aroma, of course. Typically, a light brown skin surrounds a delicate baked dough, downy to the touch. It divides easily, ready to cosset butter, while threatening to crumble if the butter is too cold. Thin crispy biscuits are made by rolling the dough thinly then baking them far apart on a tray in a hot oven. Mile-high ones have a dough so wet it can’t be rolled; these must be hand-shaped and baked cuddled so closely they help each other rise. Small biscuits remind old timers of their large families when they were children, each family member getting one just out of the oven, with a second and third pan of them to follow.
Anyone who has ever enjoyed biscuit nirvana carries the memory and yearns for the person who first made that perfect biscuit—you crave THAT biscuit again. I, too, do that. I’ve spent years mastering the art of the biscuit and look forward to returning to this year’s festival to sample many more. You should, too. With home cooks and professional bakers alike competing for your taste buds, you might just float away on a cloud of White Lily. As far as I can tell, the Southern biscuit is here to stay if Knoxville keeps this up.