Every Sunday after attending church at Bethany Baptist in Andalusia – or, in recent weeks, after tuning in to the online broadcast of the service – Brenda Gantt starts making lunch. “It’s a standing thing,” she said. “I always cook for my family.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, she would invite others over, too. “I love to entertain and have people come eat and relax,” she said. And she has plenty of room in her home, with a dining room table that seats 14. If need be, she can seat six more in the kitchen and another six in the den.
On a recent Sunday, as she prepared the same biscuit recipe she’s been using for as long as she can remember, Gantt decided to make a how-to video. That’s when she realized she’d have to hold the phone with her left hand and make the biscuits with her right. Not an easy trick, but she nailed it.
In the video, viewers won’t see Gantt, but they hear her unmistakably Alabama accent as she makes a well in the biscuit bowl filled with White Lily self-rising flour: “I make me a hole like a bird nest and I’m puttin’ in some buttermilk,” she says.
Gantt has been making these biscuits for so long that she doesn’t need to measure her ingredients. “I don’t measure, so I don’t know what to tell you,” she says. “You just have to practice.”
Then she pours in buttermilk and some canola oil – even though she prefers to use Crisco shortening, she says, the oil is a healthier alternative – and mixes it, one-handed, just like every Southern grandma ever did. “Pull in as you go,” she says.
When the dough starts sticking together, she turns it out onto a chopping block, which she has already sprinkled with flour. Still using one hand, Gantt kneads the dough. “You don’t want to work it a long time because your biscuits will be tough,” she warns.
She pats the dough flat and introduces her “most prized possession,” a biscuit cutter she made herself 52 years ago when, as a newlywed, she cut out each end of a 1970s Chef Boyardee can.
With a nonchalant twist, she cuts and then flings each biscuit into her greased cast-iron skillet, instructing viewers to bake at 500 degrees until brown. And that’s all there is to it. “This is just easy and quick,” she says. Certainly, she makes it look that way in the 4-minute, 45-second video posted on her Facebook page.
Unbeknownst to Gantt as she served those very same biscuits to her daughter and son-in-law and their daughters – the grandchildren always fight over the soft one in the middle, she says – her video was starting to catch on. In the blink of an eye, it had been watched more than a million times. She’s still in disbelief over all the comments and messages she received – too many to read them all.
“People loved it,” she said in a phone interview as she took a break from planting daffodil and chive bulbs in her yard. “I think it brought back memories of their grandmothers making biscuits the exact same way.”
‘I stay busy’
Gantt, who doesn’t mind saying she’s 73, has five grandchildren – three granddaughters who live within golf cart-driving distance and another granddaughter and grandson who live in Tuscaloosa.
They call her “Big Mama,” and during the summer she hosts “Camp Big Mama” where they stay with her, learning to cook, going fishing and having fun spending time together. At last summer’s camp, her youngest granddaughter, 10-year-old Banks, and two of her friends made wedding gowns out of toilet paper.
“They were beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” she said. “We played music and they walked down the aisle. We just had a great time.”
When she’s not cooking for family or someone in the community – once at a church fundraiser, she kneaded and cut out 900 biscuits in one evening – Gantt loves tending her flowers, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables. She mows her grass. She takes line-dancing classes at the senior center and performs in a group that dances at nursing homes.
“I stay busy,” she said. “I’m not a sit-around person.”
Originally from Northport, Brenda Hicks earned her bachelor’s degree at Livingston State University, then a master’s at the University of Alabama. She taught school – from kindergarten to seventh grade science – for 25 years, taking time off to stay with her son and daughter when they were little.
Her husband, George, died one month after they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in August 2018. “We worked as a team,” she said. “We were with each other all the time.”
After he retired from the Alabama Beverage Control Board in Montgomery, George had time to take on more projects on their 80-acre, wooded homestead. He and Brenda bought an 1875 home and moved it to their property, transforming it into Sweet Gum Bottom Antiques.
After Hurricane Opal damaged the big virgin pines on their property, George cut the trees down, had them sawed into boards and built a six-bedroom, six-bath lodge. “He didn’t want it to go to waste,” Gantt said.
Their son and daughter-in-law were married at Hickory Ridge Lodge, and it became a popular wedding venue. In the large commercial kitchen, Brenda and George cooked for events.
The Gantts bought another home, this one built in 1905, and turned it into the Cottle House bed-and-breakfast inn, which she still manages.
“You need to enjoy living,” she said. “We don’t get but one life.”
‘Make eating an event’
When her son and daughter were growing up, she insisted they eat whatever she made for dinner. In the days before cellphones, she would take the phone off the hook when dinner was served, and everyone would sit and talk after they ate. She believes it’s important for families to linger over meals and enjoy time together.
“We need to make eating an event,” she said.
Her children have followed suit with their own kids, which is why they love, for example, rutabagas. “Both of their mamas are real, real good cooks,” she said. “They both cook like I do. All my grandchildren have been raised to eat all kinds of foods. We don’t coddle to them.”
Gantt’s repertoire includes “all kinds of meats,” accompanied by fresh vegetables and biscuits or cornbread. Once a week, she likes to cook a pot of dried beans or peas, which make “a cheap, filling meal that’s full of protein,” she said. Leftovers can be used as the basis for other dishes – baked ham becomes ham spread, a pot of pinto beans becomes chili.
But she never wants to shame those who don’t cook the way she does, because she knows that not everyone learned in their mother’s kitchens the way she did. Instead, she wants to help others “learn how to feed their families without staying in the kitchen all day,” and without necessarily having to find a recipe.
After her biscuit-making video went viral, Gantt started posting other videos of herself making things like hot-water cornbread, hamburger steak and baked honeycrisp apples.
During the pandemic, especially, Gantt has noticed “mothers don’t know how to cook and are a wreck because of it.” To help them, she started sharing videos on a new Facebook page, Cooking with Brenda Gantt. She plans to demonstrate a recipe each week, including some of the requests she’s received for dressing, meatloaf and tomato gravy.
“I guess I’ll have to plan a few Sunday dinners around those,” she said.
But there’s one recipe she’ll never share. She recently made 350 tea cakes for a family in her community whose home was hit by a tornado, “so they can have a dessert for several days,” she said. “They absolutely melt in your mouth. It’s the only secret recipe I have.”
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This story was first published by AL.com.