Welcome back to Eating the Silents, the cooking series in which I attempt to recreate the dishes and meals consumed on the silent screen. This time, we’re going to be preparing the biscuits that Mabel Normand prepared for her hubby in Fatty and Mabel Adrift.
(A big thanks to Marie Roget for requesting this recipe!)
Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) is a cute newlywed comedy starring Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. They’re the newlyweds and, yes, they do end up adrift but I wanted to focus on one of the early scenes in which Mabel tries out her cooking skills. (The film can be found in the Slapstick Encyclopedia set.)
You know something is wrong when your biscuits smash the crockery. Undeterred, Mabel serves the biscuits to her husband along with ham and coffee. When he makes fun of their rock-like texture, Mabel bursts into tears and Roscoe is obliged to smash a biscuit into chunks and try to eat it in order to comfort his bride.
It’s all very sweet and Arbuckle and Normand (close friends in real life) have great chemistry. But I’m interested in that biscuit. If comedy is rooted in real life, is it possible to create rock-like biscuits without any special ingredients?
My favored biscuits are a sweet, ethereal buttermilk drop recipe found in The Joy of Cooking. They’re the same one’s I’ve been making since my mother taught me how; I think I was six or seven. Drop biscuits have more liquid than rolled biscuits and are, frankly, a lot harder to mess up so I decided to opt for a classic rolled recipe. (I make buttermilk baked goods all the time now that I’ve discovered buttermilk powder. No more wasted partial quarts! And it lasts forever! I’m not their paid spokesman but I may as well be. Hint, hint, hint.)
I browsed the Internet Archive for a rolled biscuit recipe from the correct era and finally settled on the one found in the 1917 book A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband by Louise Bennett Weaver and Helen Cowles Le Cron. The naive title struck me as something that would have appealed to Normand’s character and the recipe seemed to contain sufficient fat and baking powder. (Many recipes I skimmed were stingy on both.)
See, my plan was to make biscuits the right way and then see if I could mess up the same recipe to yield little hockey pucks.
I would advise you to use whole milk for this. Even though the fat level is pretty good, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Also, I substituted butter for lard because I was feeding a vegetarian.
These biscuits are TINY! One and one-half inch biscuits are barely a mouthful. I cheated and used a one and three-quarter inch cutter and they were still tiny. Of course, if Mabel’s had been smaller, maybe they would not have broken so much of the crockery.
The biscuits turned out okay. Nothing spectacular or complex, just your standard baking powder biscuit. But now it was time to create some rock biscuits. In order to accomplish the kind of biscuits that Mabel served her hubby, I was going to have to abuse the dough a bit.
Tough biscuits are usually the result of one or two things: the dough was overworked or too much flour was added. I decided to use both tricks in order to achieve the ideal comedy consistency.
I took the dough scraps, covered them with more flour and worked them and worked them and worked them. I was developing the gluten in the dough, something very desirable in breads but the absolute death of biscuits and other quick breads. I also added a generous dusting of flour to further ruin the dough and then wadded it up into one big biscuit.
It looks like Mabel may have burned her biscuits but it was a cold night and I didn’t want to stink up the joint, so I skipped that step. However, even without it, my biscuits were fairly inedible. What do you think?
Okay, so it doesn’t smash any crockery but good heavens is it tough! Mission accomplished: I managed to make an inedible biscuit.
Pleasing the Husband
By the way, A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband is a bit of an oddity because it’s a combination recipe book and novel. The story follows Bob and Bettina during their first year of marriage and features dialogue that was obviously written by Thermians try desperately to hold a human conversation.
“Say, isn’t it great to be alive!” exclaimed Bob, as he looked across the rose-decked table at the flushed but happy Bettina. “And a beefsteak dinner, too !”
“Here, Bettina, let me mash those potatoes! It’s fine exercise after a day at the office !” And Bob seized the potato masher with the same vigor that he used to handle a tennis racquet.
“Good for you, Bob ! They can’t have a single lump in them after that ! About the most unappetizing thing I can think of is lumpy mashed potato, or mashed potato that is heavy and unseasoned. More milk? You’d better use plenty. Here! Now watch me toss them lightly into this hot dish and put a little parsley and a lump of butter on the top. There, doesn’t that look delicious ?”
And why, may I ask, is Bob not Over There? I’m sure beating back the rats in the trenches would be equally fine exercise. (Please forgive my hostility. Nearly 500 pages of Bob and Bettina saying things like, “There, Mister Lobster, you’re out of your can” has left me slightly mad and more than a little resentful.)
The Bride and Her Biscuits
If you look up the phrase “bride’s biscuits” in a search engine these days, you’ll likely be greeted with easy recipes that use both yeast and chemical leavener. The older use of the phrase is not so benevolent.
Bride’s biscuits were compared to rocks and endless jokes were made about their hardness and inedibility. It’s all cruel humor at the expense of young women likely living apart from their parents for the first time. Biscuits are a tricky item because they seem easy on the surface but there are certain pitfalls that an inexperienced cook can easily trip on. I’d like to see the groom’s biscuits. Further, it’s unlikely that all grooms were as sweet as Mabel’s Roscoe.
The idea of a young woman struggling with her biscuits was also addressed in D.W. Griffith’s 1909 short film Her First Biscuits. In that picture, Florence Lawrence has the opposite problem: nobody tells her that her biscuits are not only inedible, they’re downright poisonous. When she leaves a bag of them at a theatrical booking office, chaos ensues. (One wonders why the earlier victims did not try to remove the biscuits or warn others off but this is very broad slapstick.
By the way, the film is sometimes listed as the motion picture debut of Mary Pickford, who does indeed play a “biscuit victim.” However, Pickford actually appeared in six other Biograph pictures (and worked on an additional one, though her scenes were cut) that were released before Her First Biscuits.
Still, this film is an opportunity to see the future superstar at the tender age of seventeen, as well as Mack Sennett as another biscuit victim and it is a chance to see the legendary Florence Lawrence. Plus, it’s a cute (if broad) and easy way to illustrate this particular comedy trope. (It’s included in Volume 3 of Grapevine’s D.W. Griffith Director series.)
We can be grateful that this particular phrase seems to be dying out in our culture. More men are cooking their meals than ever (though women still outnumber them) and the average age of first-time marriage is on the rise, making it less likely that a woman will try out her first cooking efforts on a spouse. In any case, everybody who wants to cook has thousands of tutorials and troubleshooting tips at their fingertips if they have internet access, an advantage our grandmothers did not enjoy.
I’ll stick to my buttermilk drop biscuits but I have to salute my foremothers, who prepared these recipes without the benefit of electricity or gas and who had to deal with a bunch of wisecracks from non-cooks. I don’t know how they resisted the temptation to slip cyanide into their baked goods but it’s probably better for the species that they did.
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