Margin Notes

Craft Studio: Why America Is Terrible At Making Biscuits


What I Was Reading:

When I saw the tweet from The Atlantic linking to an article called, Why Most of America is Terrible at Making Biscuits, I was intrigued. I have only attempted biscuit-making a few times and the results were always underwhelming. They never seemed to turn out as well as my dad’s, but I suspect the magic of his biscuits resides in a combination of the specific juice glass he used to cut them out after rolling them and my childhood nostalgia for them.

In this article, Amanda Mull describes her experiences as a Southerner transplanted to New York in search of a good biscuit. In her words, “With every dense, dry, flat, scone-adjacent clump of carbohydrates, I became more distressed.” Mull decides to take matters into her own hands. Using her mother’s recipe, Mull makes a batch of biscuits that turns out to be “just as terrible as all the other ones in New York.”

This passage describing her process caught my attention:

“In subsequent attempts, I tried everything I could think of to get it right. I worried about the buttermilk, so I bought an expensive bottle at the farmer’s market, which did nothing. I tried different fat sources, including butter and lard, which made small differences in flavor and texture but still resulted in a shape and density better suited for a hockey rink than a plate. I made sure all of my ingredients were ice-cold when I started mixing, which is a good tip in general, but did not fix my problem. I kneaded the dough more or less, made it wetter or drier. The only thing left was the flour, but I figured it couldn’t be that—wasn’t self-rising flour the same everywhere? We had just used grocery-store flour back home.”

What Moves I Notice the Writer Making:

* We often give writers feedback along the lines of “vary your sentence beginnings and endings” and “avoid repetition.” This is a terrific example of breaking those “school writing” rules for effect. This paragraph reads more like a list of all the possible solutions the author tried and their results. The repetition of “I” at the beginning reinforces the image of her trying one thing after another after another.

* Most of the sentences follow a similar pattern: I __________, detail, description of how the attempt failed. As I read, I noticed my own investment in this biscuit project growing with each disappointment. I wanted, as I’m sure Mull did, the next one to work. This series of sentences, each following a similar construction, underscores the attempts as a process of elimination.

Possibilities for Writers:

* Read this passage as a writer to notice and name interesting craft moves and discuss how they impact you as a reader.

* Examine one of the longer sentences and describe the role of the commas. Use the same structure to create an original sentence of your own.

* Organize a series of events or actions into a paragraph using similar repetition.

* Watch for other examples of effective repetition in your independent reading.

* As you read, find examples of writers breaking “school writing” rules and consider why they might have made those choices.

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