Biscuits or Scones: British Origins of an American Favorite!

Nope.

I can just see your neurons pointing fingers, your eyes sending signals to your brain, with a little interior voice saying, “Oh, yes, those are biscuits, just like my grandma used to make.”

But don’t be mistaken when you look at that photo.

Nope.

Those are scones. Which I baked the other day from a tiny new cookbook, a treasure from Britain’s National Trust: Sarah Clelland’s National Trust Book of Scones.

Now, I know this is going to bother some people, but I’m going to say it again: traditional American cooking, anyway the kind we think of as traditional – roasts, potatoes, gravy, 3-vegs, etc. – evolved from British roots. Yes, yes, let’s not forget the other influences, I hear you – Native American, German, French, Dutch, West African,* and Spanish – but I’m going to flog that old horse again. And I’m going to say once more that unless someone does a step-by-step, ingredients-by-ingredient analysis examining the written recipes, I don’t want to hear any more generalized and unfounded/undocumented claims that Southern food was anything but essentially British in origin.

Between 1620 and 1640, thousands of English people sailed for the New World. Do the math.

In my opinion, the only food writer who’s tackled this issue of origins in any detail – other than Stephen Schmidt and Damon Lee Fowler – is Adrian Miller. In his stellar work of scholarship, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time (2013), Miller dissects the foods comprising soul food. In many cases, he demonstrates that a number of dishes, including greens with salt meat, first came from kitchens in the British Isles. Actually, the Romans liked to toss smoked or salted meat into pots of beans, etc., too.

Many hands and pots in the kitchen, yes, but the structural background – backbone? – derives from the first ethnic group (other than Native Americans) who sank permanent roots in North America.** And lest you think that English cooking is bland, boring, and stodgy, you’ve not been paying attention to historical cookbooks, for one thing.

But you’re still wondering about those scones, I imagine.

Baking powder helped to make these breads – scones, biscuits, what-have-you – lighter, taking the place of pearl ash or just plain beating the dough.*** Maybe a little cream of tartar, too.

So here’re the ingredients for the classic scone, according to Ms. Clelland:

Self-rising flour****

Butter

Lard

Milk

The dough turned out a bit denser than what I’m used to, e.g., American biscuits, which of course come in all sorts of permutations. Many of the recipes in the National Trust Book of Scones require an egg, but not the classic recipe. A little note of interest: An Englishman, Henry Jones, invented self-rising flour. In 1849, he patented his “invention” in the United States. This flour became a must-have in English kitchens, as well as kitchens in the American South … .

They’re scones, true, but you could have fooled me. My eyes told me another tale: biscuits, American style

Now I need to check out recipes for bannocks, which seem to be ancestors to scones.

*I use the term “West African” here because the nation states now extant exist because of artificial borders drawn by colonizers.

** We’ll talk later about the Spanish.

***See Linda Civitello’s Baking Powder Wars (2017)

****I make my own self-rising flour: to every 1 cup all-purpose flour, add 1 1/2 teaspoons baking [check that expiration date!] and 1/4 -1/2 teaspoon fine salt, depending upon your preferences.

© 2018 C. Bertelsen

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