Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy*

I’ve written about biscuits in the past, and I’ve had occasional successes on this front, but the reality is that I’ve never hit them consistently until recently. Over time, though, I’ve stolen various hints — and I realize that these pretty much work with almost any decent recipe. Try these out:

1. Don’t worry so much. I long ago discovered that worrying makes the beer sour and the barbecue tougher. It does the same thing to biscuit dough. The stuff is easier to make than you’ve been taught to think.

2. Sift your dry ingredients. I wish I could say why this makes a difference, because modern flour is presifted, but it always has to me. Certainly, everything in the bowl seems fluffier before I mix it all together.

3. Use cold fats.
Some people go so far as to freeze their butter or shortening and then grate it into their dry mix. I just use very cold butter, cut it into very small pieces, then use my fingertips (not my whole hands) to quickly incorporate it into the dry mix and make those little pea-sized flour that are the beginning point for good biscuits. I tried a pastry cutter and two forks to do the same thing, but found using my fingertips worked better and faster. If you do it quickly, the butter doesn’t get warm before you finish.

4. Make a ‘reservoir’ in the middle of your dry mix and pour in your liquid.
Milk, buttermilk, whatever…and then use a fork to fold the dry mix into the wet until you get a very rough dough.

5. Don’t overwork the dough and keep the rolling pin out of things.
You just want to get the dough together, and then you can work it out with your hands. It’s easy with a little practice.

6. If you can’t get cake flour or southern-style biscuit flour that’s low in gluten, let your dough rest half an hour. It’s a tip I saw in several recipes and it definitely works. Of course, it also means you have to wait half an hour.

7. Use a biscuit cutter (they’re cheap) and never twist it — push it up and down. Almost anything else, including a drink glass that’s used in the same way, can pinch the edges of the biscuit and inhibit rising.

8. Brush the top of the biscuit with something
to help it look golden brown. Some people use buttermilk before baking; I brush them immediately out of the oven with melted butter. It works great.

*Thank you for a great line, Kacey Musgraves.

About those three billboards

My wife is a SAG-AFTRA member, and SAG has one of the big awards shows of the season, so the movie screeners from various nominees have been rolling into my house. That gave me a chance to see “Three Billbords Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which I wanted to see because it was set in a fictional Missouri town and I’ll watch anything with Frances McDormand in it.

I walked away a little infuriated, but also a little fascinated: These are characters with conflicting values, with angels and devils on their shoulders, like a lot of people I know. You never know which shoulder is going to lead the charge on a given day.

Fictional Missouri is apparently mountainous and really green at Easter season (neither is true, although you might find a tiny sliver of southwest Missouri that has big enough hills to be mildly confused with the North Carolina locale where this was shot). Real Missouri, with its gray and even snowy Marchs and early Aprils, would have been a better locale for this bleak tale. And again, the southern accents that Missourians don’t have often showed up here, as they commonly do in movie and TV portrayals of Missourians. I have accepted that Hollywood will use southern accents to characterize rednecks from North Dakota to Florida, so I let that pass.

McDormand rang mildly true to me, though. I’ve certainly met any number of Missouri women who were capable of getting mad enough to consider setting fire to a police station, but not so many who would actually carry it out. Their Inner Midwesterness puts that kind of rage in a hidden box, designed never to be opened…but if it does get cracked apart, watch out.

Missouri’s become a meaner place over the years than the one I remember as a young man, and the police always seem to show up in the middle of the worst incidents. Still, I cannot recall ever dealing with or meeting a police officer anywhere near the brutally racist range of Sam Rockwell’s character in this film. Now, Zeljko Ivanek‘s officer (Ivanek sure shows up in a lot of good roles) rings much more true. His character strikes me as the real one to avoid, because you know that Rockwell’s character will flame out (which is quite literally what happens here), while Ivanek’s cop will be there for generations, often leading with his devil’s shoulder.

Misery after misery unfolds in this movie, but you can’t look away. You might find yourself rooting at the end for McDormand’s and Rockwell’s characters to be successful in their little quest, which is designed more to cleanse their souls than to rain down any sense of justice. And that might make you wonder what exactly is wrong with you. This movie is nothing if not morally ambiguous, which is how a lot of people live their lives. But I can’t recommend it as a way to learn about, or understand, Missourians.

Things I have bought at the corner variety store

..which is an incredibly cool place that still seems to do good business:

..and I have desperately wanted to drop money on the large selection of Archie McPhee stuff they have, but so far have resisted. If they had a basement level with fish tanks, they’d be almost perfectly like the Mattingly’s dime store where I wasted so much of my youth.

Seven favorites of 2017 in no particular order (until the end)

Chris Stapleton, From a Room, Volume 1. Look, he’s a blues musician. I know he wears cowboy hats and sells hits to country stars in Nashville, but he’s a blues musician. He’s got a blues musician’s voice and plays a guitar that has more sustain than twang, and you can hear the weary life stories in his voice. This album features all those talents, even on fun little tossaways like “Them Stems.” He’s a big-time star.

Ray Wylie Hubbard — Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast As I Can. I’ve been pulling the title track, with Eric Church and Lucinda Williams singing harmonies and a subtle little mandolin part, into all of my playlists. The other songs also are classic RWH territory — a little about living, a little ruminating about death, quite a few call-outs about cool guitars and amps. The guy’s a treasure.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — The Nashville Sound. Some day, Isbell is going to make a “meh” album, I suppose. This isn’t it. The album takes turns being snarling and soft, and if you are not affected by “If We Were Vampires,” you are dead inside. But “Hope the High Road” is an anthem of both rage and defiance over our current political situation, with a reminder that “there can’t be more of them than us.”

JD McPherson — Undivided Heart and Soul. It works the straight rockabilly line a little harder than his last two efforts, but I love his voice and his songwriting and he remains far more than some mere traditionalist.

Hayes Carll — Lovers and Leavers. He released this in 2016, but I didn’t get around to listening to the album until this year, and I immediately regretted waiting for so long. There is a sad worldliness about this album, particularly “Sake of the Song,” (my favorite song this year) that I just find overpowering.

Nikki Lane — Highway Queen. I often tell this story at my own gigs: The first time I saw Nikki Lane in person (the very night when this photo was taken), she was wearing this top (Nikki is on the left; Shelly Colvin is on the right and the namesake is in the middle):

Buddy F. Miller and friends

If you’re going to open an album with a song titled “700,000 Rednecks,” you’d better have some attitude and some chops. Nikki Lane has ‘em. “Jackpot” is another favorite single of the year for me.

(Side note: Most of this video was shot in downtown Vegas, just east of the Fremont Street Experience where all of the tourists go. This is a very cool area, with lots of locals’ bars, restaurants and the funky old El Cortez hotel. Check it out.)

But when it comes down to it, the album below is easily my favorite of the year. If it was an LP, I would have worn it out already:

Valerie June — The Order of Time. It’s just trance-inducing (in a good way), super-cool and the perfect music to play at 2 a.m. after a gig. Her voice is unique and the riffs that support her songs are just irresistible. This album melds into one long, trippy, beautiful dream.

Again, Lord?

Dear Lord:

I know that You blessed me with the privilege of being a St. Louis Cardinals fan from my childhood until well into my adult life. I knew the thrill of victory, and even when Satan momentarily blinded that umpire and threw the 1985 World Series to his servants, the Royals, I could not be denied the joy of watching a championship-level team that knew how to win the big game.

But now, Lord, You test me, for I have become a fan of the Washington Nationals. This team finds glory in the regular season, and excruciating pain in the post-season, and now the window is closing on the time when they remain above mediocrity (or worse).

Lord, You may see Washington as a seedbed of wickedness and despair, but that fifth inning against the Cubs seems like an overreaction on Your part. I have seen hundreds of baseball games, and that very well might be the oddest inning I’ve ever witnessed in person (I will give You points for creativity, though).

O Lord, we have suffered enough. Forgive us our sins. Give our Nationals one more chance next year before the team crumbleth. Let us win a playoff series. We don’t have to go to the World Series or even win the league — we just want to be the victor in one of these accursed first-round matches.

In Bryce’s name we pray, Amen.