I met Robert and Deb in July. It was halfway through the ASP summer of 2019, and I was spending a few days in Harlan County, Kentucky. I was in the van with a first-year staffer, Rachel, and she drove us up a mountain, handling each curve with caution. Before we reached the top, which housed two families that the staff was also working with, Rachel pulled into a driveway on the left. One of the homeowners, Deb, has been making the volunteers biscuits, Rachel said, and as we walked into the kitchen, we saw that today was no different. Deb said hello and offered us a biscuit in the same breath. We both took one. I sliced mine in half and smeared the insides with jam.
The next day, I went back to Robert and Deb’s home. When I pulled up, the volunteers and the family were sitting beneath a tarp in the front yard. One of the volunteers was standing behind a grill, and everyone else was sitting with plates of meat, vegetables, and biscuits on their laps. I was handed a plate upon entering their circle, and as I ate, I listened to them talk about the progress of their porch project, the approaching rainstorm, and Robert’s experience in the mines. With a lull in the conversation, one of the group leaders decided it was time to get back to work. The volunteers moved to finish installing deck boards on the ramp coming off the landing, and I sat on the finished part of the porch with Robert and Deb, where I stayed for the rest of the afternoon. There is something about sitting on the porch overlooking a Kentucky hollow that made everything feel important: our dreams, working at Big Lots, falling in love, perfecting a biscuit recipe.
With the pandemic progressing over the past few weeks, Robert and Deb have been checking in on me. Robert asks how I’m doing, and I tell him about the things that feel good – the seeds I planted with my roommate are already sprouting, I have lots of time to write, the spring air is warm and full of sunshine. He shares good moments with me, too – Deb is still working, they haven’t lost faith, and they have been making lots of biscuits and gravy. When everything clears up, he wrote, you come out here and we’ll all have some biscuits.
In the spirit of Robert and Deb, in the spirit of afternoons on a porch in Kentucky, I have been practicing the art of biscuit making this week. I asked Robert for Deb’s recipe the other day, but soon after he responded, I found I had already written the recipe out in my notebook from last summer. In my eastern North Carolina kitchen, I pulled my hair into a ponytail, opened the windows, and turned on some bluegrass. Unfortunately, I did not have the exact ingredients from Deb’s recipe, so I improvised, and even though the biscuits were incomparable to Debs, it still felt good. It felt good to remember standing in their kitchen and sitting on their porch; it felt good to tell Robert and Deb about my biscuit-making endeavor. To justify my subpar attempt, I confessed to using gluten-free flour and not having lard. They encouraged me to keep trying. It takes practice, Robert wrote, and you can’t use gluten-free flour.
In this time of uncertainty, I’m trying to find pockets of goodness, pockets of encouragement. When I first sat down to write this blog post, I was thinking about whether or not an ASP summer would happen and what it might look like. As of last week, as many of you have probably seen, ASP announced, in lieu of the pandemic, the suspension of volunteer hosting in the summer of 2020.
I am overwhelmed by different questions now: what will happen to all the families who need home repair? How will rural communities bear the weight of a pandemic? I don’t have answers for these questions, no one does, and while the unknown is frightening, it can also be a way for us all to band together. In this time of uncertainty, we can still love, and I think reminding each other of love, of how deeply we are loved, can bring unity. Love can help us find strength and goodness and hope amidst the fear.
ASP plans to host volunteers again as soon as it is safe to do so. Even though volunteers will not be doing home repair with ASP in Central Appalachia this summer, we can still be present in the region. To maintain relationships, reach out to a homeowner or someone from your work crew. To remember the feeling of a Tuesday night beneath a Trix yogurt colored sky, turn on some bluegrass. To support ASP’s mission, make a donation. And after doing all that, maybe try making a pan of biscuits.
Deb’s Biscuit Recipe:
- Sift flour.
- Make a bowl shape in the flour. Put a cup of lard in the “bowl.”
- Fill the “bowl” with buttermilk.
- Heat up water.
- Knead the flour, lard, and buttermilk. Add water as needed.
- Sprinkle a little flour on top of the kneaded dough.
- Grease a pan with butter and lard.
- Heat the oven to 500 degrees.
- Make a log with the dough. Cut the log into patties.
- Cook until golden.
Jamie Tews, former summer staffer and long-time ASP friend