Sour Milk Biscuits
Sour Milk Biscuits

My parents belonged to a generation that was on the move. Along with so many others in the 1920s and 1930s, they’d left midwestern prairie homes and migrated to California, where they grew used to unsettled territories and familial disconnections. This was especially true of Dad, whose family began life in Indiana, resettled in Oklahoma, then migrated in the early 1920s to California, where my grandfather ran a small grocery store and chicken ranch. There the world of the past evaporated like morning mist in the mild Pomona air.

Dad’s family life in California would also be full of broken threads. His mother died when he was only seventeen, and shortly thereafter he dropped out of school to marry a young woman he was “crazy” about, but they separated almost immediately, and the marriage was annulled. By then the Great Depression had begun, and Dad drifted alone from one low paying job to another, driving a taxi and then picking and living on pears in Oregon. Shortly after his season with the pears, he contracted tuberculosis and was confined to a sanitarium in Southern California. During his eighteen-month confinement, he would tell us, many years later, none of his family came to visit. “Not one,” he’d say, voice rising, eyes watering, shoulders tensing toward his ears.

In 1935, cured of TB and desperate for a job, Dad took off for Death Valley Junction where he had wrangled himself  a position with the Pacific Borax Company.

Death Valley Junction
Death Valley Junction






He got himself to Crucero, a dusty outpost in the Mojave some ninety miles south of the Junction, when a flash flood washed out the roads and railway tracks. It was 3:30 a.m., so Dad sat down in what passed for a railway station to get some rest. Around dawn a man in a handcar appeared, as in a dream, sent by the president of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad to transport Dad to his new employment. The dawn that day must have turned Golden Canyon the color of honey.

Golden Canyon
Golden Canyon







Dad’s job as clerk earned him only sixty dollars a month to start, but before long he was proudly writing the boss’s letters for him and taking control when the boss left town and the frontier settlement veered slightly out of whack.






One noon, he told me once—over a piece of my mother’s dense mincemeat pie—about thirty army men arrived in town and wanted to be fed. The cook threw up his hands when he saw how many there were. He went to the store and got a bottle of booze, and in an hour he was drunk. Here, Dad put down his fork and assumed the booming voice of some old time, desert rat who’s seen and done it all: “So I fired him, promoted the dishwasher to chef, waited the tables, and got them all fed.”

The Amargosa Dining Room
The Amargosa Dining Room






Then, directing his watery eyes toward something I couldn’t see: “Things like that happened all the time. It was an exciting life. You did everything.”

Dad’s one disappointment at this time stemmed from his unsuccessful attempt to work a gold mine with a Shoshone partner. The mine lay twenty miles from the Junction, hidden among the canyons, and could only be accessed, and then with difficulty, by burro. The cost of searching for elusive veins of ore eventually persuaded Dad to suspend his mining operations. But the lure of undiscovered gold stayed with him long after the railway stopped running in 1940 and the Amargosa Hotel closed down two years later for the War, long after he and my newly pregnant mother, seeing the handwriting on the  desert’s tumbled walls, fled with two-year-old me to Compton, a working-class suburb outside Los Angeles.

Our Death Valley Home
Our Death Valley Home


Sour Milk Biscuits

Dad never told me what he served those army men, but I like to think that it included sour milk biscuits, a pioneer bread easily assembled from staples.

2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
4 tablespoons oleo or
other shortening
⅔ cup sour milk

Preheat the oven to 475°F.

Sift dry ingredients together.
Work in oleo.
Lightly mix in the sour milk, stirring just enough to hold the
dough together.
Toss on a lightly floured board. Knead gently for a minute.
Roll ¼-inch thick. Cut with a cutter to form biscuits.
Bake 10–12 minutes.

Based in the Bay Area, Judith is an author and Professor Emerita at U.C. Davis

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