An Eastern Shore Tradition
The history of the Maryland Beaten Biscuit probably goes all of the way back to the colonial days, although little written history exists. There was no comprehensive written history of the tradition until it was compiled by Dick Orrell in the interest of preserving it. The history was read into the Congressional Record on October 13, 1973 of that year by Former U.S. Senator from Maryland Charles “Mac” Mathias. Here is an except:
Maryland Beaten Biscuits originated in Southern Maryland and the Eastern shore in the days of the Plantations and Manors. Probably due to the lack of leavening, this method of making bread and setting it to rise was apparently the only way possible. This could have been the outgrowth of the Indian method of beating corn for making food items . . . Prior to cooking the biscuits, they have to be beaten in some manner. From my research it appears that the ingredients were mixed together by hand and then place on a biscuit block to be beaten . . . A servant of the manor beat the dough with a special ax used only for this purpose. The ax could have been a bar of iron, a blacksmith hammer or a hardwood mallet.
For more details of the recollections of Dick Orrell see our post with the full contents of the Congressional Record entry.
From the Kitchen of Ruth Orrell
Ruth Orrell was a one room school teacher from Wye Mills, MD. As a means to make a little “pin” money so she could send her son, Dick Orrell, off to college she started making Maryland Beaten Biscuits out of her home kitchen in 1935. Her husband, Herman Orrell Jr, delivered the biscuits to customers on his milk route.
At this point in time many people still wanted to have biscuits on the table, but as society was modernizing, housewives weren’t as keen to spend their Saturdays beating dough on a tree stump. This allowed many home bakeries, such as the Orrell’s, to thrive during the mid-1900’s. The Orrell’s eventually built an addition onto their house, joining the old chicken coop to the kitchen to create a more commercial operation. As a part of this, in 1948 they had a custom “roller” made to mechanically beat the dough, eliminating the manual labor of beating. In 1965 Ruth retired from teaching and went into making biscuits full time.
The business did very well through the mid-1900’s. As Ruth Orrell aged, her son Dick took oversight of the business, incorporating it in 1974, but she lived in the home and worked until the mid-1990’s (when she was in her 90’s!). Dick, an eventually his children, ran the business through the next several decades.
The End of an Era… For Now
With progress comes change, some for the good and some for the not so good. With the advent of the modern grocery scene with its in house bakeries producing every kind of baked good imaginable, the public’s desire for a largely utilitarian staple food waned. While the business was kept open through the 2000’s, it finally had to close it’s doors in late 2013 with the death of Dick Orrell after 80 years of continuous operation out of the same Wye Mills kitchen.
While the commercial viability of Maryland Beaten Biscuits is questionable, the historical significance of them cannot be overstated. The distant struggle of early settlers can still be felt through the wooden handle of a hammer on an oak block, making the history of our forefathers just a little bit more real. It is our sincere hope that this tradition continues and we invite you to be a part of the next chapter in their story.