There’s no better way to relax the mind and enjoy the late summer than a drive along Kentucky’s AA highway. It’s a very secluded drive winding up and down the hills of Campbell, Bracken, and Mason counties of Northern Kentucky. I had that golden opportunity this past Saturday on the way to Old Washington, Kentucky, to print T-shirts for an upcoming family reunion. There are no fast food joints at every exit on the AA like other major highways. And the signs for little farmers markets and produce stands off the highway remind you of all the wonderful fall harvest items and dishes soon to come to the table. As you near Maysville, Kentucky, the hilltops are bathed in bright yellow with fields of blooming sunflowers.
There are three burial sites of my mother’s family just off the AA. I decided to stop at one of them to pay homage to her family. I was reminded while strolling the family plot of one relative, Old Aunt Nellie Henderson. She was my grandfather’s aunt, and I heard many stories of her as a kid. Nellie was the sister of my great grandfather, Fredrick Gibson Ling, who was the first of his farm-raised siblings to go to college – in Chicago. It was called ‘business school’ back then, but was more like an associate’s degree in accounting, which he used as clerk for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad offices in Newport, Kentucky. For a young boy in his early twenties who’d never cooked for himself, who knows what kind of new food he was exposed to in the big city. The big city lunchrooms, cafes, and speakeasies he would have seen must have been just a brave new exciting world. I have the monogrammed leather suitcase he took with him to Chicago. My Grandpa showed me the autograph book he had with all the great things his male classmates wrote about him when he graduated. The ‘big city’ certainly made an impression on my great grandpa, because when he returned, he and his new wife moved to the ‘big city’ of Dayton, Kentucky, near the even bigger cities of Newport, Covington, and Cincinnati. He spent the next 30 years raising his family, and recording freight inventory going through the area on the railroad.
But it was Aunt Nellie who stuck out in my head on this past trip. Several years ago I had gone through my grandmother’s recipes for a legacy family cookbook I put together for a family Christmas gift. Aunt Nellie’s biscuit recipe was one I found, among several others. Grandma’s recipes were not the best for duplication. Her recipes were more like notes or just suggestions of how to make a dish. But Grandma always gave credit to the relative or publication where she found the recipe.
And Nellie’s biscuits must have been divine for my Grandmother to have snagged the recipe. The recipe was probably the one her mother, Anna Gibson Ling, used for the family. Anna was raised with six sisters in Suffolk, England, during the Crimean War. Anna’s father, Cornelius Gibson, was the Land Agent at a manor house called Willingham Hall, owned by the Barnes family, and a fraction of the size of Downton Abbey. Cornelius would have had a job similar to the character, Tom Branson, on Downton Abbey, who made all economic arrangements for the farms on the estate.
But English biscuits are known to be hard and dry. They squat on the dividing line between cracker and crisp cookie. So, Anna probably adapted this English biscuit with which she was familiar to the country recipe with pork lard. She might have also been instructed by farm neighbors that soft red winter wheat flour, with lower protein and gluten was the best for biscuits. The end result – magic!
The country biscuit’s popularity on the table has to do with its versatility. There’s nothing like a biscuit as a vehicle for fresh jam, sorghum, molasses or honey. They’re also fabulous layered with country ham or covered in white sausage gravy. They can even transition to dessert, when covered in fresh macerated strawberries and whipped cream to become shortcake. My grandmother made the best fresh strawberry shortcake, with her version of Nellie’s biscuit recipe. If I close my eyes I can still smell and taste it.
Nellie was the youngest sister of my great grandpa. And when her mother Anna Gibson Ling, died early, Nellie became the de-facto mother, cooking the meals for her three hungry brothers – Melbourne, Garrod, and Fredrick, and father, Charles an English immigrant. Her older sister, Maud had already married Samuel White, and moved to her own farm just up the road. Because of these family care-taking duties, Nellie married late in life, after all her brothers had married and left home. She never had children, but was known far and wide for her cooking. She always hosted Thanksgiving dinner for her siblings living near the farm in Carthage. So it was Aunt Nellie’s three niece-in-laws, Mary, Virginia, and my grandma, who became the inheritors of her cooking methods and farm recipes.
I visited one of her niece-in-laws Virginia, on her farm in nearby Melbourne, Kentucky, several years ago, and she even praised Nellie’s culinary brilliance. Virginia and her husband Elbert had been at those Thanksgiving dinner tables that Aunt Nellie prepared. After Uncle Andy died, Nellie would walk down the hill of her farm and meet Virginia and Mary and walk with them to Church every Sunday into her late 80s, a three mile round trip.
Nellie was a teacher for Campbell County Kentucky District 21 as a young woman. I found a Kentucky State School Annual Settlement document for teachers that showed Aunt Nellie made a salary of $74.81 for the 1897-1898 school year. She was also very involved with the Mt. Gilead Methodist Church in Carthage, teaching Sunday school to young children. Her famous biscuits most certainly made an appearance at church, school, and Grange Hall picnics and Sunday family dinners, which is where Grandma tasted them.
When Nellie married Andrew Henderson in 1917 she moved to his farm high on a hill off of Washington Trace, overlooking the Ohio River, and had an instant new family to cook for. Uncle Andy’s farm was so high on the hill that my mom said Grandpa had to park at the bottom of their unpaved driveway because their car couldn’t make it up the incline whenever they visited. Mom remembers the fresh Sunday chicken dinners they had at Aunt Nellie’s and that they had to pump all their water from an outside spring-fed well. Grandpa would try to pay Nellie and Andrew for the farm produce they’d give them, but they wouldn’t accept money on the Sabbath. A discourse would ensue, which resulted in Grandpa slipping money in their mailbox on the walk down the steep driveway.
A map of Carthage, Kentucky, showing the Charles Ling Farm, Aunt Nellie’s farm, Maud Ling White’s Farm, the school where Nellie taught, and the Mt Gilead Methodist Church.
The secret to Nellie’s biscuits of course was lard – cold lard as biscuit aficionados know. And this lard was hand rendered from the fat of the heritage pigs her father Charles Ling, raised on the family’s ancestral farm. Crisco would never duplicate the flavor of Nellie’s biscuits, and probably why the recipe fizzled out after my Grandmother. And, because biscuits are hard to make well from scratch. Pillsbury and other large food conglomerates made it easy to forget the handmade biscuits with their exploding premade dough in a cylinder products.
A groundbreaking ceremony in the late 1950s for the new Mt. Gilead Methodist Church – the congregation who were fed by Aunt Nellie’s biscuits.
The old Carthage Mt Gilead Methodist Church, built in 1900, now demolished, where Aunt Nellie would have served her pork lard biscuits.
The family farm would pass on to Garrod, the youngest and only son who didn’t move to the ‘big city.’ Nellie would inherit all the furniture and kitchen implements, Garrod would get the farm equipment, and buy his other siblings out to get farm. His son, Roger then inherited the farm, which continued to raise pigs. I remember visiting his farm, with my grandparents when my brother and I were staying with them when my sister was born. Everything on that farm smelled like pigs, even the chocolate chip cookies warm from the oven, that Roger’s wife, Mary, served us!
Aunt Nellie lived to be 88, but the legacy of her lard biscuits and her farm fresh cooking lived on in our family through my Grandmother, her niece-in-law. I’m sure someone is still making pork lard biscuits today similar to Aunt Nellie’s on the farms of Carthage, Kentucky,