Biscuits, American Style

There are three things I love to make on the weekend, for which I am almost guaranteed to have the ingredients on hand. The first is pancakes, the second is popovers (lately made in my Yorkshire pud’ tin). The third is cheese biscuits, a variant of a southern-style drop biscuit with a bit of the American heartland thrown in, in the form of large quantities of cheese. I’ve discovered that red Leicester is as close as I can get to American cheddar cheese, as this recipe simply does not work with what they call cheddar cheese here (or in Australia for that matter, I made these while down under and it was a massive fail!) But it’s because of these tasty treats that I have such a hard time with the use of the word “biscuit” in Britain. These biscuits are flakey and tender, light as a feather.


Things that call themselves biscuits here are either sweet (cookies) or cardboard-ish and tasteless cheese transporting devices (crackers). I’ll stick with my southern biscuits, while fully acknowledging that they are not exactly diet food. If making them in the US, the recipe is here (the recipe relies on the magical US pantry staple “Bisquick“–I swear I’m in Pillsbury and Betty Crocker withdrawl right now…) while for those of us suffering without Bisquick in the UK, the “from scratch” version is roughly this (sans the garlic topping that I don’t normally do anyways, as I make them for brunch).

42 responses to “Biscuits, American Style

  1. If you need cheddar and Bisquick, I can get them at the Air Force Base. I don’t think we live that far apart, so it is totally do-able.

  2. > what they call cheddar cheese here

    What they call cheddar here is actually cheddar, i.e. cheese made in the Somerset village of Cheddar since at least 1170, or cheese which aims to copy the style of cheddar. Day-glo orange cheese cannot possibly be considered to be cheddar.

    > I have such a hard time with the use of the word “biscuit” in Britain

    “Biscuit” is a word that has been used in these islands since about 300 years before the Pilgrims landed in America for objects identical to what we call biscuits today (c.f. Fr. ‘biscuit’ and It. ‘biscotti’). British usage therefore has historical precedence over American usage, and we don’t feel the need to rename our biscuits to a word which is a corruption of the Dutch word ‘koekje’, any more than we feel we have to rename pancakes crêpes! 😉 Nor do we feel the need to call what we would regard as a form of scone ‘biscuit’, simply because Americans for whatever reason have at some time in the past become confused!

    > recipe relies on the magical US pantry staple “Bisquick“

    To what extent are Americans incapable of baking without convenience formulations manufactured industrially in food factories?

  3. Howard, I am trying to phrase this in such a way that you understand and I don’t offend. We Americans that come over here to UK, miss the conveniences of home, not that that the way the British are doing it is wrong. We are just used to the way we do it. There is nothing right or wrong about either way. I dare say, if you were living in America you would have the same problems as we do here. For instance, if you went to an American store and tried to find PG Tips tea, good luck, you won’t find it unless you find a specialty store catering to expat Brits. Also if you asked for Spotted Dick or wanted Faggots and Peas, an American would look at you like you had a serious medical condition or you wanted to shag a man (nothing wrong with it if you do, I’m just saying). So cut NFAH some slack, she is doing the best she can adjusting to a new country and trying to make due when she can’t find the conveniences of home. So don’t come here day after day and belittle her like a school child. If you don’t like her views, don’t come over here and read them. It really is that simple.

    And for the record, Coca-Cola was invented in America, and the British version tastes like crap.

  4. I am going home in May for a visit. I would be more than happy to bring you back some Bisquick. My supply is running low as well!

  5. Kat, I was trying to be helpful, because NFAH seemed to be in difficulties (despite the fact that she has lived here a number of years, has a lot of reference resources available, has a high intelligence and a lively curiosity) as to what the meanings of ‘cheddar’ and ‘biscuit’ are in this country, and indeed are in the rest of the non-American English-speaking world.

    Now I am afraid I am in difficulties myself: I really do not know what your advice to me about what I should or should not ask for in America is all about. Are you suggesting that were I in America I would probably be insensitive as to different meanings of certain words there? I don’t think I would be. (I am not sure if I follow what that man-shagging bit is all about, though. Perhaps you could give me some help on this one?)

    Thank you for reminding me where Coca-Cola was invented, though in fact I was never in any doubt about it. It so happens that some of your fellow Americans prefer the taste of the British version, and I could provide sources for this fact if you wanted. I’m afraid I don’t know what crap tastes like, so can neither agree nor disagree with you on this one!

  6. Howard, you are not coming off as helpful at all, you are coming off as condescending. I have gone back in NFAH’s archives and it seems like you only come around here to talk down to her, not to be helpful at all. You never comment about anything personal she writes only criticize when she finds something that she finds odd. Of course she finds things odd, she lives in a foreign country.

  7. Thank you, Kat, but I don’t think NFAH would be an easy person to talk down to, even if that were ever my intention.

    Perhaps I should comment more when she writes something personal — it’s just that to do so has sometimes seemed to me to be a little intrusive.

  8. You can imagine how odd, to a British ear, the combination of ‘biscuits and gravy’ sounds.

  9. By the way, Howard, I have to confess to sharing the same aaaaaargh feelings as Kat regarding your comments.

    You’re clearly a very nice helpful bloke, who wants to shine a light on the path of an American finding her way in the UK, but sometimes you do come over as a little defensive of British ways and vocabulary. It is hard to read the tone of a written word, especially a short comment, when there is no facial expression to read, and little context, so I’m not always sure whether you’re being ironic or not. If you’re not, then I guess it does come across as critical.

    When NFAH says “I have such a hard time with the use of the word “biscuit” in Britain”, she’s not saying she doesn’t understand it, or doesn’t know what the origin is. She’s saying that a different meaning of the word is so deeply ingrained, that the British use seems odd. For me, this really resonates. See my comment above.

    I haven’t said anything before, because I think NFAH is up to expressing her own opinions, but since Kat has opened up the dialogue, I’d like to add my pennyworth. Moving abroad can be lonely and difficult. One of the reasons people start blogging, is to connect with other people who are going through the same experiences. When I started blogging, it was an absolute lifeline. To read someone saying “I know exactly what you mean” or even just “Hang on in there” was an incredible boost to morale. I know, from what she has written, that NFAH has been in those situations. I know that at other times she just wants to make an interesting observation (like the use of the word “biscuit”). Unless I’ve got it completely wrong, she isn’t attacking British ways, or wanting to change them. Just observing, reflecting, and sometimes feeling a little sad. She’s not searching for dictionary definitions.

    I don’t think you really believe that NFAH is “in difficulties … as to what the meanings of ‘cheddar’ and ‘biscuit’ are in this country”.

    And I have evidence that Americans are capable “of baking without convenience formulations manufactured industrially in food factories”. I don’t think that’s a very polite thing to say on an American’s blog.

  10. NFRH starts all comments on differences between English usages and American ones from the default position that the US usage is correct and the UK one wrong. As a matter of absolute fact, Howard is right in stating that cheddar is a british cheese, its origins very ancient indeed. The neon trans atlantic version is called american cheddar because it isnt real cheddar at all, simply a much later and inferior varient. The ‘things that call themselves biscuits’ are (wait for it) biscuits! You see, its easy when you try to understand.
    Iota and Kat very sweetly try to make excuses for the offence NFRH causes with her constant carping and criticism of Britain and british ways, but Kats remark that NFRH is ‘doing the best she can to adjust to a new country and trying to make do when she cant find the conveniences of home ‘ is really giving her more credit than she deserves. If you take the trouble to look back through the archive you will agree with this. I have come to the conclusion that if NFRH stopped trying to whinge 60 million Britons into changing for her convenience, she would be a much happier person.

  11. Rimfire, that is absolutely not true. My default position is that American ways are the ones I’m used to, but there is no value judgement about better or worse. I think there are some things that American gets right and Britain gets wrong, and some things that America gets totally wrong and Britain gets right. But the things I’m most likely to comment on are where I was not expecting a huge difference and I’ve been surprised to find one.

    Many, many thanks to Kat and Iota for the support, I think you’ve got my viewpoint 100% and I’m not sure why Howard and Rimfire keep missing it. Probably because Kat, Iota and me are in some ways all in the same boat.

  12. >If you don’t like her views, don’t come over here and read them.
    Really? I thought the whole idea of writing a blog and inviting comments was to exchange ideas and opinions, not to try to close down different ones.
    I come from Australia and have lived in both GB and USA, and have to side with Howard and Rimfire on this one. The tone of NFAHI’s post struck me as very critical. If I were to suggest that if americans cooked more food from scratch and stopped using so many packet mixes (and adding tins of condensed soup to everything), their food would not be so disgusting, I expect american readers would be offended. So I won’t do so!

  13. Critical of what? I’m singing the praises of one of my favorite baked goods. What exact part of that is critical? I note at the same time that neither cheddar cheese nor “biscuits” are the same in either place, and of course I’m entirely likely to prefer the versions with which I am familiar. But that’s it. Who knew this would throw up such a firestorm. Storm in a teacup, more like it.

  14. > more like it

    I’ll take that as a request then, shall I? 🙂 🙂

    Anyone who has read NFAH’s blog for some time will be aware of the fact that she can be quite provocative. So, occasionally when I detect — rightly or wrongly — that she is in ‘provocative mode’, I attempt to answer her challenge. It is because I enjoy her writing that I do this; in taking time to consider her points I am in a way paying her a compliment.

    The two things which she said that I thought were designed to provoke a reply were, (1) “… what they call cheddar cheese here (or in Australia for that matter, I made these while down under and it was a massive fail!)” and, (2) “I have such a hard time with the use of the word “biscuit” in Britain. […] Things that call themselves biscuits here are either sweet (cookies) or cardboard-ish and tasteless cheese transporting devices (crackers).”

    Let’s take (1). NFAH could have couched this in a neutral way, with words like “British-style cheddar does not work for my recipe”, but she didn’t. What she did was craftily (no pun intended!) insinuate an idea that what Brits call cheddar isn’t ‘echt’ cheddar. To get an idea of how this might sound mutatis mutandis, imagine a Brit, saying in America, “what they call hamburgers here”, or saying in France, “what they call Camembert here”. To many ears it would sound as if the genuineness of the article is being called into question in the very land of its origin.

    Now for (2). Again, NFAH could have cast this in a different way; she could have said, “What Americans call ‘biscuits’ is different from* what the rest of the world calls biscuits: I’m going to talk about American biscuits.” It really can’t be that NFAH, who has lived here for two and a half years, and has a B. S., an M. S. and a Ph.D., is literally having “such a hard time with the word ‘biscuit'”, can it? She is either being disingenuous (an intelligent person can quite often make something sound like nonsense by pretending not to understand it**), or satirically humorous. I took the latter interpretation to be her intention, and some of my reply was in the same vein.

    * she would probably have said ‘than’.

    ** and notice how she uses the ambivalent word ‘tasteless’, rather than a more neutral expression for ‘neither sweet nor savoury’.

  15. I don’t think it’s fair that NFAH is criticised for making value judgements, when others do so too. Rimfire says American cheddar is “a later and inferior variant”. Later it is, yes, but inferior – well, that’s just a matter of opinion.

    NFAH – I do think you are sometimes critical. You say British crackers are “tasteless”, which is your opinion and you’re entitled to it. But it is critical. I don’t mind, because I’m not really bothered by one person’s opinions of British crackers, and actually I’m interested to hear. It makes me stop and think. If you want my opinion, it’s that crackers are designed to be a little tasteless, to show off the flavour of the cheese (and you have to admit we do have great cheeses). If you want to horrify yourself on tasteless crackers, try water biscuits. I can’t bear them myself, but others love them. I guess American crackers are loaded with salt, which gives them more flavour, if you like that kind of thing.

    There is one point which I think everyone misses (and I’ve said this before, so I won’t go on about it). The meaning of a word can vary between nations. It is not an absolute – there’s no ultimate dictionary that fell out of the sky. So in Britain ‘biscuit’ means one thing; in the US ‘biscuit’ means another thing. Yes, the British meaning pre-dates the American meaning, and yes, more people use the American meaning because there are now more Americans than British people on the globe. But it has two meanings.

    So NFAH, I can see why you upset people when you say “things that call themselves biscuits over here”. They don’t call themselves biscuits; they ARE biscuits! The same with “what they call cheddar cheese”. It IS cheddar cheese!

  16. Iota,

    I think I see what the problem is; in my head as I type, I’m talking to other Americans back in the states. “What they call cheddar here” and “what they call biscuits here” are not meant to be value judgements, merely distinctions for my family back home or others who had not travelled and would not know that the words DO mean such different things in different places. (I was gobsmacked that the Aussies had yet a third different variant on the sharp cheese.) Similarly for the crackers, I didn’t mean “tasteless” as an insult, more of a statement of fact (perhaps should say “taste-free”?) and as noted probably to highlight the cheese, and also yes probably due to the lack of salt and other flavors like those I associate with my beloved Cheez-Its. Again, because if I just said crackers an American might not know that they’re different here too.

    So perhaps there are two lessons I should take from this. (1) I need to stop writing at an American audience in my head, when I know the readers might be from all over. (2) I need to stop hitting “post” until I’ve read through it for all possible statements that could be misinterpreted.

    Yes, occasionally I am griping and frustrated, but mostly trying to stay good humored, and I am nearly never out to be purposefully provocative. Weary, yes, lonely, yes, tired of life being more difficult than I thought it would be after a few years here, yes.

  17. NFAH, you have my sympathy, if you will do me the honour of accepting it. I was for some of my life an expat, so understand exactly what homesickness is like.

    Iota, your point about vocabulary and the fact that it changes from time to time and from place to place is an important one, and can lead to some interesting philosphical considerations. I’m reminded of the Red Queen in ‘Through the Looking Glass’: “A word means what I say it means, no more, no less”. This is okay so far as it goes, but does not take into consideration the requirement for communication. If you were to start calling cyanide ‘champagne’, I’d be quite wary of accepting an invitation to drinks at your house! 🙂 (Sorry, this is beginning to drift off-topic, is not very relevant and is massively pedantic, but I was trying to lighten things up — even, perhaps, to bring a faint smile to NFAH’s face?)

  18. Well, my 5 year old daughter told me that she didn’t want to call the President Barack Obama, and that she was going to call him Larry instead. So who is he now? Barack or Larry? I guess she is in a very small minority (1 versus several billion), plus he does have a birth certificate, and forty-something years of accepted usage, so it is probably fair to conclude that his name is Barack. To her, though, for the time being, he is Larry.

    Yes, we’re going off the point here, and sadly geography is such that there’s no chance of a glass of champagne together. (Do I mean ‘geography’ or ‘location’? And should those have been double quotes or single quotes? Help. The more I think about it all, the less I can communicate.)

    Anyway, I’m sure you will bring a smile to NFAH’s face with your most recent comment (I was going to say ‘last comment’, but who knows?)

    NFAH – it is indeed complicated writing for a diverse audience. I didn’t mean to make it even more so for you, but if I have, I hope that that’s in a good way.

    I think the “what they call x over here” also has connotations of “so-called”. To English ears, you’re saying “they might call them biscuits, but huh, whatever they are, they’re pretty sub-standard”. We use that phrase as an insult (perhaps you don’t in the US?). “Call yourself a blogger?” – that kind of thing.

  19. Iota, from all I hear about President Obama, he sounds the kind of man who would be *delighted* to be called ‘Larry’ by your daughter!

  20. >Are these the same as British biscuits?
    Yes Amit – those look just like the british bourbon biscuits of my childhood, eaten most days at 4 o’clock with a glass of milk- did you grow up with mcvities chocolate digestives too? I still find them addictive (as my waistline attests)!

  21. Pingback: A preemptive strike « Not From Around Here

  22. Amit, have you had a chance to try the “Southern-style” American biscuits? If nothing else, they are an interesting baked good. They’re a staple of the restaurant chains Red Lobster and Hardees, and even McDonalds. They make really nice breakfast sandwiches because they stand up to the ingredients quite well.

  23. Rimfire, there were quite a few varieties of biscuits – the bourbon one, Parle-G and then one called Nice which used to have sugar stuck on top of it – I would lick/eat the sugar first and didn’t always eat the biscuit. 🙂

    NFAH, yes, my friend bakes those biscuits once a while and they look like a puffed up mound – and taste great with butter.

  24. Rimfire, I forgot to add – “but not the mcvities chocolate digestive.”

  25. Can I just come out and say what we’re all too polite to say, but all thinking?

    That Howard dude RUINS this blog – he’s the reason I don’t come back to read more often (and as an American that’s been in England for going on 5 years, that really sucks)

    He’s not doing anyone any favours…
    Every time I read his comments I wish I could reach through the screen and smack him up side the head. How he ‘graces us’ with his pedantic knowledge and condescends to you, NFAH when you write such awesome stuff, is unnecessary, rude and obnoxious. He’s entitled to his opinion, but he doesn’t deserve such calm and even-tempered replies when he’s clearly got a personality that could peel paint of walls…

    Seriously, BAN his ass – what a knob…

  26. Mutiny!–
    I’m sorry to hear that you don’t want to read me when the negative comments are around; I feel as though I’m stuck in a very American position of favoring free speech. Howard’s comments are to me a mixed bag, sometimes they are too negative for me but sometimes he does catch me out making a gross exaggeration or otherwise playing for effect. I’m not a fan of banning commenters in most cases (I have a colleague who is even more extremely pro-free speech, refusing to impose a ban even though a commenter was probably crossing a legal boundary towards slander) , so I try to roll my eyes and not take things too personally. It’s a totally viable question, though, as to whether my position is the right one.

  27. Hmmm …

    I got a hunch ‘Mutiny!’ and ‘Howard’ are the same person …

  28. MaryLou,

    very astute… I don’t have evidence that Mutiny! and Howard are one and the same but there is another clear candidate for posting under a pseudonym or two on this blog, have a guess! And no, I don’t just mean me 🙂

  29. ROFLAO!!!

    Too, too funny! It’s really made my day.

    Okay, okay, I’ll ‘fess up to it — it’s a fair cop, guv’nor! Mutiny and I *are* the same person. Mutiny plays ‘Mr Hyde’ (the angry half) to my ‘Dr Jekyll’ (the calm half). 😉 😉 😉

    I think MaryLou deserves a cigar!

    > not take things too personally.

    Much the best way. And thank you, NFAH, for your defence of me.

  30. Is MaryLou the same person as Howard and ‘Mutiny!’? 😉
    Maybe it’s not Jekyll+Hyde, but Jekyll+Hyde+Poole. 😀

  31. Howard, you make good points, and if I had a serious problem I would have blocked you a long time ago. We have an interestingly different view of the world but that’s what this whole expat communication thing is about… what good does it do for my understanding life here if I cut off discourse with someone with whom I don’t always agree?

    Amit, LOL. I’ve checked the IP addresses in the last day and so far no leads, but I’ll keep you posted! But seriously, check out other detractors/commenters…

  32. > but there is another clear candidate for posting under a pseudonym or two on this blog, have a guess!

    My bet’s on Merry! 😉 🙂

  33. Hey now, here I am minding my own business, and I get dragged in!

    “Merry” is a nickname, but it’s the only one I use to comment. I don’t back my sis up with a bunch of different names, I promise. 🙂

  34. LOL, Merry — it was a bit of light-hearted whimsicality on my part, you being the person here *least* likely to be a ‘shape-shifter’! 🙂

  35. Notfromaroundhere,

    I enjoyed this post very much, and I also enjoyed (if was completely surprised by all the continued comments back and forth…). So I’d like to add my two cents, weighing in on this issue.

    While I enjoyed reading what Howard had to say, as an expat American, his comments mostly rubbed me the wrong way. I, too, have experienced speaking as to other Americans, only to have British friends I know take it the wrong way (when I had no intention to offend). Now we’ve talked through all these things, and neither takes offense at comments back and forth. We have a bit of fun with it now. All this interchange reminded me of what I have experienced.

    Howard’s comments would probably seem fine, made in the same tone of voice to other Brits, who often seem to act this way to each other. But to our American ears, it sounds a bit shocking! I’ve gotten used to it now, though….

    Expat 21

  36. > Howard’s comments would probably seem fine, made in the same tone of voice to other Brits, who often seem to act this way to each other. But to our American ears, it sounds a bit shocking!

    Expat, thank you for your comment, but it’s basically a matter of speaking up when you think something someone has said is wrong! Often this is because what is said is not founded upon good evidence, or is illogical, inconsistent, or depends for its effect on rhetorical trickery. The world is a cacophony of poor arguments, but there is nothing peculiarly British about wanting to correct them, nor is it particularly ‘shocking’ — my American friends also correct me when I go astray in debate, and I hope so will you, and NFAH, and anyone else who feels at any time that my argument is fallacious.

  37. But I think the problem is that Howard takes what I’m saying as though it was straight reporting, not commentary which inevitably involves some use of literary device (such as exaggeration for effect). Howard’s literalism can be seen above in his response to my sister (Merry). I’m pretty sure we all got the joke and didn’t need it spelled out so clearly. Some of what I write is very much in the style of the title of Iota’s blog (“Not wrong, just different”). A lot of it is (thanks to Expat 21 for the astute comment along these lines a few posts ago) about reality deviating from my expectations. And some of it is just plain home-sickness, the desire for something to be comfortable and familiar. So in those contexts I don’t always need to be reminded of the facts–it’s not like I was unaware of the history of cheddar cheese–I just missed the stuff I was used to.

  38. > Howard’s literalism can be seen above in his response to my sister (Merry).

    But that was a test of the hypothesis “Americans don’t get irony”.

    I got the result I expected!

  39. Oh good lord, Howard, you don’t think I actually thought you were accusing me, do you?

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