Like most, I always believed there were only two kinds of flour; all-purpose and self-rising. As it turns out, ignorance is NOT bliss. Flour is a complicated substance and if you want your bakes to be the best, a little knowledge goes a long way.
My mother always used flour by Red Band; a staple in the American South. She used it because her mother used it and the results were always the same…perfect bakes every time. I always used what I thought were better flours because they cost more and were produced by big corporations who surely employed people who tested every recipe in some secret kitchen, on site, and guaranteed perfection. Like I stated before, ignorance is not bliss.
My cakes always came out of the oven perfect, but only if you needed something suitable for playing Frisbee in the backyard. My biscuits were sure to fill in for standard hockey pucks at any pro game. Obviously, the recipes were the problem. I just knew the author of the recipe got something wrong. They forgot to list a certain ingredient, or they didn’t know what they were doing in the first place.
My oven was next on my list of reasons for my failures. Obviously the temperature was incorrect. I bought an oven thermometer and was ready to aim my wrath at the appliance after my next bake. The temp was right. Maybe it was the tools I used. The cake tins must not be exactly 9 inch tins. The manufacturer was behind my ruined cakes. They didn’t measure them right. They were playing with the numbers and didn’t think anyone would notice. I took out a tape measure and placed it inside the tin. (Honestly. I did this.) A perfect 9 inches! I came to the conclusion I had wanted to avoid…it was me. I just couldn’t bake. I was a disgrace to Southern women everywhere. My grandmother who was a master at biscuits she could make in her sleep, was turning over in her grave! I was glad she wasn’t here to see how far her talents had fell away from the family tree.
My mother stepped in and tried to calm my frayed nerves. She hadn’t baked in a long time due to her hand tremors and arthritic knees, but she recommended I go back to the basics and try good ‘ole Red Band, as it what she and her mother used and they never had any problems when they used it. I decided it was worth another try and on my next trip to the grocery store, I would pick up a bag of Red Band. Though, I couldn’t remember seeing it as much as I used to.
After perusing the aisles of many local grocery stores, I found various brands of flour, though the familiar white bag with the stand out red banner was nowhere in sight. I had been using Gold Medal with no luck, so I tried Pillsbury. The results were okay, but not much better. King Arthur? About the same, and far more expensive. I began scanning the internet to see if perhaps there might be one bag of Red Band flour somewhere out there, unopened and perfectly preserved. Nothing. It was then my eye caught a link to an article originally published in The Charlotte Observer, about the fate of the dissapearing flour mills once so prevalent in the South.
Where once one could drive through any southern town and spot the tall towers of a mill grinding wheat into the white fluff that is the basic neccesity of every baker, now they were a ghost of times past. Big corporations had bought out the once familiar staple of the American South and their thriving economy, were now in the hands of executives in skyscrapers and business suits.
I learned my mother and grandmother’s choice for making the lightest cakes and flakiest biscuits had been bought out by J.M. Smucker’s Corporation, and in an attempt to “economize.” they discontinued Red Band in 2009, choosing to focus on another regional flour; White Lily.
I know little about White Lily. The brand is one I have only seen recently upon shelves in local grocery stores. I researched reviews of the flour and found a mix of positive and negative. Some like it. Some don’t. But one thing was a certainty; everyone loved Red Band best. And to futher complicate our choices, not all flour is the same. All-Purpose is not for every purpose in baking. Different flours produce different results and one recipe will differ depending on the brand used. A hodgepodge of wheat thrown together in a mill and ground down into a single bag will not suffice, especially when it comes to something as technical and precise as baking. Summer wheat is fine for breads, but the delicacy of biscuits, cakes and pastry require the soft, red winter wheat grown in the South. Finding the right flour that can handle the job is tough business and with so many mills handled by corporate America, and grocers attempting to eradicate Southern staples for a more “diverse” consumer, (more on that later), it seems bakers are being forgotten.
Through my research, I discovered a few scant independently owned mills still survived the greed of corporations in the 20th and 21st century. According to the article in The Charlotte Observer, only 6 are still in operation in North Carolina and can be found in truly Southern grocery stores. I bought a bag of Daily Bread, a brand manufactured in Henderson, NC by Sanford Milling Inc., and put their recipe for sweet milk biscuits to the test. Their self-rising flour produced a light biscuit as good, if not better, than any biscuit from those fast-food chains we so often frequent in our hurried mornings any day of the week. I found their brand, Snow Flake, in a Piggly Wiggly in Kenly, NC and immediately scooped up a bag. After reading so many positives of the brand online, I am ready to attempt another cake!
So, where do we go from here? For me, I am fighting against the grain, so to speak, and searching the smaller markets for the quality I remember and my heritage are known for. I will support my local mills with pride and not allow myself to be homogenized by corporations and dollar signs. It will not be easy. Grocers see little merit in stocking their shelves with what they consider old fashioned and unappealing to “upscale” shoppers. If this means I have to spend a little more, drive a little further away, I am resolved to do so. I am proud of my “Southerness,” right down to my buttered, lard filled biscuits made with good ‘ole, unsophisticated, non-upscale, down-to-earth, locally owned and operated, by those who know…flour.
Read the article about the loss of Southern mills at the link below: