Feature story: Invitation to Notice

This is a long-form version of a feature in the 2023 print issue of Mosaic magazine, "The Many Layers of Marion: Biscuiting in the Black Belt with Scott Peacock." Scroll down for the story...

Mosaic Magazine: 2023
Invitation to Notice:
Biscuiting in the Black Belt with Scott Peacock

By Emily Blejwas

On the first day of June, Scott Peacock greets me at the door of Reverie House, a restored Greek Revival mansion in Marion, Alabama, wearing a fresh white apron that reflects his demeanor: sunny and calm and straightforward. Distilled, somehow. I’ve been standing on the porch a few minutes, amid towering white columns, taking in a massive magnolia, watching two bees take turns ducking in and buzzing out of a perfect white blossom on a low branch.

Marion, Alabama.

When I leave, several hours later, I’ll confess how much I love magnolias, calling it cliché, but Scott will not flinch. “If you love magnolias,” he’ll say, “they say the largest magnolia tree in the state of Alabama is in Marion. Let me tell you how to get there.” His directions will include the ravine where Nathan Bedford Forrest allegedly hid from Union troops for two days on horseback, Phelan Drive (after Judge John Phelan of the Alabama Supreme Court), the house of Andrew Moore (governor of Alabama when it seceded from the Union), and Sam Houston of Texas, who married a Marion native. These are just “little bits I know,” he’ll say.

Yet Scott’s understanding of Marion history — in all eras, from all angles, with all complexities — is astounding.

But all that is to come. Now, upon my arrival, Scott welcomes me into the grand parlor, then into what was called the “ladies sitting room” in a booklet published a few decades ago by a local historical society. He encourages me to explore while he puts on tea and I do, wandering through the rooms upstairs and down, unsure what I’m looking for and unnerved by the portraits of White landowners and American Empire decor. Especially in a place like Marion, a predominantly Black town and site of the slaying of Jimmie Lee Jackson in 1965 by a White state trooper. It was this event that prompted a call to carry Jackson’s body to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery in protest, which transformed into the voting rights march from Selma.

So I’m relieved when Scott fetches me and delivers me into two gorgeous rooms: a kitchen and dining room, remade and recast with beautiful dishes and hardwood and herbs growing in pots; white cabinetry and green walls. It could not be more exquisite, simple, and light.

I’m eager to get started, to press record, but Scott waves all that off. “The tea leaves are about to fall,” he says, “and I don’t want you to miss it.” So I watch the French press set in front of me, full of water a color somewhere between bittersweet and persimmon, leaves bunched at the top like lily pads in a dreamlike pond. When the leaves begin sifting down, I am mesmerized. It’s an uncomplicated process, but strangely transformative, as if the leaves are marking off boundaries of space and time. Like an unseen hand is circling a white string around this kitchen: holding Scott and me and twelve corn muffins baking in the oven and the tea in its press and two teacups and saucers and a jar of local honey and a plate of butter and its knife.

My wandering had served the same purpose. Slowing me down and preparing me to be present in this afternoon, this conversation. Without it, I wouldn’t have noticed the tiny frame holding a black and white photograph of a mother lifting a baby toward the camera. Wouldn’t have pondered whether she was worried or content at that exact moment, raising a child back then. I wouldn’t have seen the stained glass window casting green onto the white wall of the back hall, or the two lion heads carved into the pillars of the fireplace. All of it helped me transition.

This was intentional. The wandering and separating marks the beginning of the Biscuit Experience, in which Scott guides a handful of people, over several hours, through an indefinable and intriguing mix of local history, culinary insight, personal recollection and reflection, food history, and artistry by exploring of one of the South’s most treasured foodways.

Scott Peacock.

It’s a concept Scott hesitates to explain, but he will say that “the whole experience really is an invitation to notice. It’s about noticing the detail, the nuance. That exercise of noticing. Even to notice familiar things a different way. I’m talking about noticing tea brewing. It’s not high on people’s list but there is something to see there. This quiet, seemingly passive thing, you know there’s a lot happening, and just to calm the self and notice that and then having watched that tea brew brings a different experience to drinking the tea.”

Not everyone can do it. “Some people can’t give themselves to that,” Scott says. But luckily, the vast majority of “Biscuiteers” as Scott calls them, “are able to watch tea brew. So it’s a gift to discover that and to have it be this thing that happens right away. To hopefully try to get people to notice little things, small things, and it sets the tone.”

Yet he is quick to point out, “It’s a lot more than that. That’s the thing. It’s not just one thing. And it’s not the same thing every day.” Each Biscuit Experience “depends hugely on who walks in that door and what they bring with them. I think for most people it’s not what they were expecting. I never know what to expect.” The Biscuit Experience is shaped by what emerges for each person, and what transpires between them. “There’s not a script,” Scott says.

Same with “making biscuit.”

“The act of making biscuit can never be replicated precisely,” Scott says. “Especially if you’re making something by hand. The fat will never be worked into that flour exactly the same way twice. It’s impossible.” Biscuit is also the perfect medium for the contemplative nature of the Biscuit Experience. “One reason biscuit became as popular as it’s become, besides the fact that it’s delicious, is because it’s also so quickly made,” Scott points out. “And that in particular lends itself well to this, because it allows for a much more organic experience without having to watch the clock.”

The Biscuit Experience began in 2019 and has engaged more than 1,300 people, over half of whom are not from Alabama, with 43 states represented. And the fact that it happens in Marion is key to its identity. It’s as much about the place as it is about making biscuit. Once, as a favor to a friend, Scott led a biscuit workshop in New York City. “And I enjoyed everything and I met lots of people. It was fun, it was interesting,” he says. “But it wasn’t this. The journey to Marion, to get to this house, to get back into this room, it’s its own preparation.”

To fully understand this journey, we first have to trace Scott’s own path to Marion. His own preparation for this life and work he’s created. Raised in Hartford, Alabama, a small Wiregrass town, Scott left the rural South at age eighteen to attend Florida State University. “I really thought I’d scraped Alabama off the bottom of my shoes for good,” he says. But it wasn’t so easy. He’d planned to study music, but immediately hit a wall. “I realized, but I couldn’t say it yet, that I didn’t have the talent to play music professionally. I went from practicing four and five hours a day to not practicing period. And that was really, really scary. I was unraveling. I was just trying to get through every day.” He adds, almost as an afterthought, “And I was cooking a lot.”

Cooking had always been a touchstone in Scott’s life, a source of both enchantment and solace. “I was always cooking and I was fascinated by cooking growing up,” he says. All the women in his family, from his mother to his great grandmothers, as well as a woman named Gertrude Moore who cooked for the family when Scott was very young, were skilled in the kitchen, which always held an allure for him. “I was very drawn to it. What took place in that room and who was in that room. It was a very happy place and people were creating these miracles and conjuring things and just all of it.”

He was also engrossed by Julia Child, watching her cook on TV. But there was no clear pathway to becoming a chef in America back then, in the 1970s. “You knew how people became doctors but how people became chefs?” Scott shrugs. And especially when it came to Southern food, which was “not considered a cuisine. In the way that Southern culture was regarded. All you have to do is look at TV Guides from that period,” Scott says. “Gomer Pyle, the Beverly Hillbillies. It was all about Southerners as entertainment. Rubes.”

With his music prospects dissipating, Scott landed a college internship in the Florida governor’s office and found himself at a highbrow party on Lake Jackson in Tallahassee. He was “doing intern things, handing out nametags,” but was summoned to the kitchen when two cooks failed to show up. “They were so desperate, they sent for me.” He laughs. But his talents were immediately noticed. One thing led to another, and in 1987, Scott became the chef for the governor of Georgia. He then lived in Atlanta, as head chef of the Horseradish Grill, then Watershed, for more than three decades.

Luckily, at the time Scott was stumbling into a culinary career, he met Edna Lewis, who disabused him of his notions of Southern cooking and culture. Before meeting Lewis, “I wasn’t remotely interested in any of that,” Scott says. “I was happy to live in a city and I told myself and her that I was on my way to Italy. Everybody was on their way to Italy. That had emerged as the popular cuisine. That’s what the cool kids were doing. That’s what was on the cover of food magazines. Southern cooking was not fashionable at all. It was as unfashionable a choice as you could make.”

But Lewis encouraged Scott to turn an eye toward his own history, and he realized, as he wrote in Bon Appétit magazine in 2021, that the very things he “admired about Italian cooking — a cuisine built upon the short distance from field to table, where ingredients are always fresh and seasonal” were also at the heart of Southern cooking. Lewis and Scott’s friendship flourished over nearly two decades; the two lived and cooked together for seven years, co-authoring a cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking, in 2003. Scott gives Lewis full credit for his pivot toward Southern food and dedication to it for all the years to come. “It was her. It was that burgeoning friendship and her commitment to Southern cooking, her interest and trying to understand what it means to be Southern.”

This pursuit, perhaps inevitably, returned Scott to rural Alabama. Following Lewis’s death in 2006, he began interviewing elderly Alabama cooks about food traditions. He bought a house in Marion (pop. 3,100) in 2010 and relocated fully in 2016. “Before I met Edna Lewis,” Scott wrote in Bon Appétit, “I thought the South was something to recover from.” But he became “so fascinated by Alabama. And the Black Belt in particular I found deeply fascinating. I still do. We could have an exhaustive conversation of just the history of this street.”

So we do. Scott knows the histories and homes of local families, as well as the founders and stories of local institutions like Judson College, Marion Military Institute, Lincoln Normal School, and the First Congregational Church. This street alone saw Union troops headquartered at Reverie, Nathan Bedford Forrest hiding in that ravine, the sewing of the first Confederate flag, and the first printing of The Alabama Baptist newspaper.

Marionettes, as Scott refers to himself and fellow locals, have also impacted the national scene. In addition to the monumental events set in motion by Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death, Scott cites Marion natives Coretta Scott and Jean Childs, wives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Andrew Young, respectively, who were essential to the civil rights movement, “not just supporting their husbands, but informing them and guiding them” through harrowing times, pushing them on when they doubted whether they should or could continue.

“It’s the complexity of this place,” that Scott finds riveting. “How all these things could take place in such a small spot in the world.” And it’s all mixed up together, on the same streets, like threads tangled in a tiny sewing box: voting rights and the stars and bars and wealthy plantation owners and enslaved persons. Even though Scott hails from small town Alabama, when I ask what surprised him about Marion, it is this: “How layered and how dense it is. Just in a very, very small space. The layers and layers and layers.”

These are quiet and sometimes hidden histories that take a careful, attentive eye and plenty of time to discover. Scott notes he learned all of this “very slowly,” and when I ask what he’d like people to understand about rural Alabama, he answers, “Which rural Alabama?” Because the complexity and nuance carries forward to today. Marion produces two local newspapers with distinct editorial tones. An imposing courthouse sits at the center of town, flanked by a mix of Greek Revival estates, Black-owned businesses, and country churches.

Likewise, Scott not only digs into Marion’s past, he sinks roots in its present. Shortly after arriving, he met Ethel Waite, a Marion native who spent decades away before moving back. Waite is a leader and force in the Black community who, on Juneteenth several years ago, discovered she had just purchased the antebellum house of the man who enslaved her ancestor. She and Scott first got to know each other at a “transformational tea” held on Waite’s front lawn, and the two continue to enjoy exchanging seasonal foods and comparing food traditions. It’s these kind of friendships, between seemingly disparate people in small spaces, that rural Alabama regularly births, but rarely gets credit for.

As Scott’s connection to Marion deepened, so did the urge to share the intrigue of this place with others. “When I decided to move here, I understood that I could do things here that I couldn’t do anywhere else. I didn’t know what they were exactly but I also knew I didn’t need to know that. I had enough life behind me to see how that drive had served me so well. I knew what was true about that feeling, that I could trust it. And I loved the idea of introducing people to this area and celebrating it. Quietly.”

Scott does not intend to make sense of rural Alabama. He doesn’t deal in simplifications, and nor does his home state. Rather, he sees his role as sitting with Marion, to learn about it and from it. “It’s a gift to be able to share something that fascinates you,” he says. “And I’m certain that much of all this is me trying to understand it myself.”

As a chef, Scott seeks this understanding through the lens that comes most naturally — cooking — and in particular, making biscuit, which mimics the multiplicity of Marion and of the South as a whole. “Biscuit is an iconic food,” he says. “It’s a symbol. It’s emblematic, and it’s infinitely complex. It’s a simple thing that most of us think we have an understanding of or grasp on, but it’s not just one thing. There are so many iterations, there’s no such thing as the one true biscuit. It is so expressive of the maker, of the culture, of place.”

Thus, in his biscuit, Scott uses “two different flours from antique wheat varieties that most people have never tasted,” both grown and ground by Anson Mills in South Carolina. The wheats are organic and heirloom, cultivated since colonial days for their suitability to Southern climes. It is these soft winter wheats that yielded flours that gave Southern biscuits their signature texture, and Anson Mills still grinds them using historic processes. Peacock reflects on these distinctive flours during the Biscuit Experience, and on Marion, his personal story, the history of biscuits and of the South; it’s a jumble of memory and culture and experience.

“I do like to think sometimes when I’m in the act of making biscuit that I’m connected in some way to that tradition of people who were making something for their families,” Peacock says. “Often under the gun, often with complicated circumstances. And that feels like a real privilege. I’m drawn to that. That’s meaningful to me. It’s one of those foods that over centuries in the South meant an awful lot to a lot of people.”

And so the Biscuit Experience is “very much about emotion for me,” Scott says. “And it’s very much about giving attention. The act of cooking is very grounding, especially if you’re not having to rush. If you can really be mindful. It is a meditation. I find it to be a very connective experience and connecting. Even though I’m trying to demonstrate certain details, even though I’m acting outside the bowl as much as I am in it, in that process, what is happening in that bowl and myself is very calming and grounding and affirming.”

In fact, Scott purposely sets his intentions before each Biscuit Experience. “I really do stop for a moment right at the kitchen doorway to try to focus myself before I go to the front door. One, I want to do the best that I can do that day, whatever that is. For the people who’ve come but also for myself. And the other is to be as open as I can be. And another is to meet people where they are. Because if you can do those things, fascinating and sometimes very moving things can happen.”

Being open, however, comes with risk and requires truth. And the honesty Scott brings to the Biscuit Experience was hard won. He is candid about prior struggles with depression. Thinking back, he says, “I don’t think it’s that easy to know who we are. I don’t think most of us get a lot of guidance or instruction in that way at all. Once I did begin to develop that sense and find ways to make peace with it, my life got a lot better. And I was certainly able to connect more in a healthier way with other people. And that is what happens in here on a good day. On those days when I can be open, and really be present.”

Being present, Scott notes, is “a practice. The more you notice, the more you notice. It is a discipline of a sort. You have to make time for it.”

The act of noticing can also reach beyond the present, into the realms of memory and the past. For Scott, making biscuit enabled him to see his father’s mother, Grandmaw Peacock, anew. As a child, he was embarrassed by her poverty and eccentricity. “She was a real character,” he says, “always playing jokes, always keeping people off balance.” Now, he sees her as “this really tender-hearted person who was born into circumstances that didn’t allow her to lead a tender existence.”

“She was surviving,” Scott says. “As husbands were dying and children were being killed in war or by disease, the burden fell on her to hold it together. And I think that outrageousness, playing jokes, keeping things off-kilter was a way that she coped.” And yet, “when she was cooking was really the only time she wasn’t frazzled. She was calm and focused and seemed connected to something bigger. She is a heroic figure to me now,” Scott says. “So, in that way, making biscuit is also an act of reconciliation for me.”

All of this runs in the current of the Biscuit Experience, which evolves and ebbs and flows each time Scott guides people through what’s both a simple and intricate endeavor.

Years ago, during a challenging time, Scott was fortified by an interview given by the late Irish poet, John O’Donohue. In it, O’Donohue says, “It’s lovely when you find someone . . . whose work is an expression of their inner gift. And in witnessing to that gift and bringing it out, they actually provide an incredible service to us all.” That is Scott Peacock, in a nutshell. But then again, there are no nutshells. “The biscuit. It’s just one thing,” Scott says. “It’s so much more than a biscuit and it’s also just a biscuit.”