Thursday, May 10, 2012

White Lily

Last week I was looking through old notebooks and ran across a 2008 journal entry written in response to a prompt about a food from my childhood. I had written about these little freezer rolls my Grandma Sorrells made, which were actually rather bland but took on the texture and flavor of whatever you ate them with in a really fine and singular way. I remember how butter and homemade fig preserves turned them into islands of sweetness and flake. I remember how my grandma rarely made biscuits, at least not that I recall. When I found out later in life how dangerously good a big old buttered cathead biscuit could be, I thought about the little rolls and how Grandma used to bake them by the dozen for us and for her best friend, an African-American woman named Claudia with whom she worked at the local primary school cafeteria. I wish I knew how to bake them myself. Possibly my father has the recipe. I will have to ask him.
Thinking about the little rolls got me to thinking too about White Lily flour. It’s the best flour you can bake with, the Southern foodways people I know assert. It’s supposed to yield fluffier cakes, more perfectly textured bread. Lighter biscuits?  Maybe. I’m not sure, though, that biscuits are meant to be light. I think of them as intense and substantive, dense and strong. If they were light, maybe they’d lose some of their heft and power. Maybe I just haven’t had the right biscuits yet. I don’t eat them much anymore. Hardly ever,  really.
At any rate, White Lily flour does have a luster and pearly softness that make it sweet to touch on tabletops, and other places, too. I’m not any sort of expert so I don’t know what makes it like that, what turns it into a sift of loose satin, like something a Vermeer model might choose to bake bread with. My grandma was an expert, though. Her reverence for the gentle softness of flour and the alchemy surrounding it makes me think now about cornmeal and its holiness, about the scatter of it around the dancing katsina spirits at Hopiland several summers ago. I think about the flung goldenness of it on a warm September wind at the Etowah Indian Mounds, and about my dear old friend John, who flung it, and who died last June at the age of 52.  Ceremonially, White Lily has a sacred quality to it that I surmise is borne of its capacity to bring sustenance, to make a meal, to build up blood and bone and brain and vision. It’s the raw stuff of spirit despite its tangible delicate softness. It becomes a tribute, maybe even a conduit, for those who use it to mark sacred time and honor ancestors. It brings things into an awareness of their commonality in a Body. I think about White Lily and wonder how odd it would seem if I headed out to the big old rural cemetery where my grandma is buried, north of Monroe, and dusted a fine skein of flour around the flat metal plate that marks her grave. I don’t think I’ll do that, but not because of the strangeness of the act or of what anyone might think about it. It just doesn’t feel like my grandma is there, beneath that grassy space with its dozens of unperturbable little memorial flags and lopsided flower arrangements made of plastic and cheap cloth. A better spot to put the flour would be around the steps of the old two-room schoolhouse at Sorrells Springs where my grandma went to school and graduated from the eighth grade in 1926. (It was as far as she got with her education; her family was large and far from wealthy and needed her to help work in what she referred to as “the field.”) The silkiness of the flour would hang around beside the concrete steps and the stones holding up the foundation of the old schoolhouse until rain fell or wind dispersed it. I doubt it anyone would notice. Not very many people visit the schoolhouse now. Still, it’s the place where my grandmother, Ruth Williams then, won her school spelling bee and received a bright blue ceramic bell edged with goldleaf as a prize. I don’t know what else she did there. Maybe she played with her dog Jack, shared a secret with a friend, or smiled at my grandfather or another boy. The milkweed and dandelions beside the old schoolhouse feel like a place where soft pale petals of floursilk could settle, a mattress of feast for ants and hornets in summer. A feeding hole of remembrance and acknowledgment bowing to the Body of ancestry that led people in the neighboring church to wash each other’s feet in big bowls or maybe in the running water of the spring. The flour-body would become a blessing, a way of saying with reverence and love, “All my relations!” before settling shyly into the waiting cimarron clay.

©Laura Sorrells 2012
all rights reserved


  1. Nice story and tribute to your mother. My grandmother taught me how to make biscuits when I was a teenager and I think I'm the only one left in the family who still makes biscuits from scratch (2 cups shifted flour, 3 T baking powder, 1/2 t baking soda, pinch of salt, 1/3 cup shortening and a cup buttermilk)... She always had her rolling pin rolled up in a soft cloth that she would stretch out on counter and use to roll out the dough... baking was often in a frying pan... The last several times that I was at her house before she moved into an assisted living home, I made biscuits for her (I learned that I needed fresh ingredients, too)

  2. Sage, thank you for the recipe. Interesting how these things vary. I remember baking a layered coconut cake for my grandmother's birthday when I was 20 years old, and how impressed she was that "there isn't even a sad streak in it!" I always loved the moist sad streaks that didn't quite bake fully, myself.

  3. a sad streak. now, you've gone and distracted me from your piece. could there be anything more beautiful than a moment of cause for the term sad streak or a woman's lips from which to speak it? holy holy, what a wondrous world. i'm not sure where the flour begins, the stairs of the schoolhouse, the cornmeal or flour, your friend john, your grandmother, you or even myself. where might any of us begin? and where might we end? the milkweed grows on))

    "It becomes a tribute, maybe even a conduit, for those who use it to mark sacred time and honor ancestors. It brings things into an awareness of their commonality in a Body." damned fine writing, laura. finer living and observation, but then observation is where damned fine living resides.


  4. this is more or less the jumping off place for the book I want to write, erin. i think everything here and there is all of a piece, and everyone too. holy, yes. all my relations. :) Thank you. I always love it when you comment on my blog.


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Georgia, United States
I live at the edge of the forest in a little town in the north Georgia mountains. I teach sixth grade Language Arts and am writing a memoir of sorts about family, spirituality, and narrative. I am also exploring a possible writing project having to do with contemporary lay contemplative experience and how it might be informed by the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christianity. I am a relatively recent convert to Roman Catholicism and an admirer of Pope Francis, Leonardo Boff, Joan Chittister, and Richard Rohr. I'm a Lay Associate of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia. I am interested in indigenous cultures, narratives, and spirituality, especially how these can inform my spirituality as a lay contemplative. I write, read, take pictures, play around with creating ephemera from paper and cloth and other organic things. I cook, hike, watch wildlife, and collect random bits of interesting oddness, both tangible and abstract. I am a seer of smallness and a caretaker of ridiculous minutiae. If you want, e-mail me at or