Biscuits and gravy now seems to be a ubiquitous dish in diners, cafes, restaurants, and food trucks. But it has humble and difficult beginnings born out of circumstance and necessity. In the late 1800s in Appalachia, biscuits were referred to as “beaten biscuits” because the batter was repeatedly beaten and folded. The work of making biscuits often fell to enslaved cooks or domestic servants, according to food historian John Egerton in Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History. Biscuits back then were sturdier and less flaky, so gravy added sustenance and made the biscuits more palatable. As for sausage gravy? “Biscuits with ‘country’ or ‘white’ gravy scratched together from sausage, pan drippings, flour, and milk were affordably made from the foodstuffs that were in low supply after the American Revolutionary War,” writes Heather Arndt Anderson in Breakfast: A History. Gravy ingredients changed over the years depending on what was affordable. During lean times, gravy was often made without meat or cream, or it was made with pan-fried ham drippings and brewed coffee for “redeye gravy.” But biscuits have always been staples. While they have historical origins in the American South, biscuits eventually became something you could pop out of a can to bake anywhere in the country.
What started as a doughnut sale to help furloughed immigrant restaurant employees has blossomed into the global fundraiser Bakers Against Racism. The organization was started by Willa Pelini, Paola Velez, and Rob Rubba, and word spread quickly in the culinary and social justice communities. Since late May, more than 2,500 bakery owners, pastry chefs, and home cooks around the world have participated in the decentralized online bake-sale fundraiser.
Part of the success of Bakers Against Racism is the universal appeal of baking. While chefs are well known for community activism, bakers and pastry chefs are not as widely known, even though bake sales for civil rights causes have a long history among African Americans. “Just being a minority in the kitchen and in life turns you into a natural activist,” said Thai-American Dianna Daohueng, the culinary director for Black Seed Bagels in New York City.
Through its online bake sales, Baker Against Racism has raised nearly $1.9 million so far, benefitting Black Lives Matter chapters and other social justice groups. “I don’t know policy, I am not a lawyer who can get people out of prison, but I can make cookies,” said co-founder and pastry chef Willa Pelini. “And maybe if I sell someone cookies, it can open a conversation about why we are making them.”
Chef David Joo was making kimchi pancakes but couldn’t replicate the taste until he phoned his mother, who provided him with the missing ingredient that made the Korean dishes of his childhood come to life: perilla oil. Available toasted or untoasted, this unique oil is made by cold-pressing the seeds of the perilla plant (a.k.a. Japanese shiso). According to Joo, it tastes “nutty, earthy, with a licorice-anise finish.” Joo, the executive sous chef at the Peninsula New York, says his family drizzles it over bibimbap, over stir-fried fish cakes, and over sauteed spinach, among other things. He prefers richer-tasting toasted perilla oil for most cooking, marinating, and finishing. Just avoid extremely high heat to keep the toasted variety from burning and turning bitter. Joo especially likes to use toasted perilla oil in the hotter months, as it complements lighter vegetable dishes and the fat amplifies flavor, even in dishes that aren’t strictly Korean. Try it on grains such as freekeh or drizzled over fresh tomatoes, burrata, and basil.
The appeal of outdoor cooking is shared around the world. Charcoal and wood are the most popular fuels worldwide, but cooking techniques vary widely. In the Philippines, chicken or pork are often “half-grilled, half-marinated” in a mix of lemonade (usually lemon-lime soda), soy sauce, and sugar cane vinegar (or watered-down cider vinegar), along with garlic, pepper, and sometimes banana ketchup. In the Caribbean, barbecue cooks spend years perfecting jerk chicken, usually served with callaloo and fried plantains. Indian and Pakistani barbecue is incredibly diverse, but here’s a taste: Punjabi-style chicken wings marinated in ginger, garlic, fresh turmeric, honey, green chilies and lime juice, then grilled over charcoal. Or try what food writer and chef Romy Gill suggests: simple skewers of cubed meats marinated in a paste of ginger, garlic, green chilies, and garam masala. In Russia, even brutally cold weather conditions don’t stop Russian traditions of cooking over fire. Baked potatoes may be tossed on the grill and loaded up with sour cream and dill, particularly to accompany a meal of shashlik pork kebabs marinated in beer or Georgian-style beef marinated in red wine, tomatoes, and onion. And in Peru, the submerged firepit known as the pachamanca cooks entire meals, including unique skewered kebabs known as anticuchos.