as you dine along the gulf coast, you're likely to pick up a history lesson from the bread baskets you encounter.
By Deborah Garrison Lowery - photography by Preston Crosby
A t my grandparents’ Southern country dinners in the 1940s, the cathead biscuit was the prize of the bread basket. “Big as a cat’s head,” my father often described it. He explained that it often was the last (and largest) biscuit formed by hand from the remaining dough after all the biscuits were cut out with the open end of a drinking glass. While many Southerners prefer red-eye or cream gravy over the steaming soft halves, there’s also a Deep South tradition of tomato gravy—made with tomatoes, bacon drippings, and cream—that soaks the hot biscuits and memories of many old-timers.
In the days of early settlers when wheat flour was hard to come by, that was no problem for thrifty coastal cooks. They discovered ways to use a small amount of flour and stretch it with cornmeal or rice to create what are favorite regional traditions today. In fact, in the early 1900s calas (cah-LAH), made from a batter stretched with rice and fried, became the forerunner to the famous New Orleans sweet beignet, which is made without rice. Those who are familiar with French Quarter history know about the calas women—French Creole women who would roam the streets with baskets of the fist-sized hot rice fritters, calling “Calas, belle, cala tout chaud!” (Ladies, hot calas are here!) While the sweet version dusted with fly-away powdered sugar is most traditional, today you’ll also find calas made with chopped seafood, jambalaya, and other savory flavors, and often served with a dipping sauce. Alas, the calas women are found only in history books now, but many Louisiana restaurants have restored the treasured treat on their menus in creative ways.
Cornbread has been a staple all over the South and it is no exception along our sandy shores. Most think of cornmeal as the basic ingredient for cornbread, hush puppies, and pan-fried hoe cakes. But the slight crunch of the meal is also popular in waffles and biscuits and often topped with sweet honey or fruit jam or jelly.
Whether you prefer your bread fried or baked, sweet or savory, or smothered with gravy or something sweet, you can sample Gulf Coast bread traditions in your own kitchen with the recipes here. If you choose to visit the source of the recipes, they’ll be served with yet another of our region’s food traditions—warm Southern hospitality
by Deborah Garrison Lowery
The key to soft, fluffy biscuits is not to stir or knead the dough more than necessary. Mix it just enough for the dough to form a soft ball and stir in as little extra flour as possible.
Fried Bread Tip
For crisp and crunchy fried bread with a soft center, be sure the oil is hot when you put in the batter, otherwise the bread will be soggy and greasy. The oil should be at least 325°.
Have the skillet, waffle iron, or pancake griddle hot and brushed with oil before you add the batter for a crispy crust that won’t stick.