MOBILE, Ala. — After his wife died in 1989, R.L. Constantine, an insurance agent in this Gulf Coast port town, had to fend for himself.
"Marshall's biscuits pretty much saved me during my widower years," he said one morning, not long after he pulled a browned tin of buttermilk biscuits from his oven. "Those little freezer biscuits, made right here, held me over until I met my new wife."
"Libba is a crackerjack cook," Constantine, a fourth-generation Mobilian, said of the woman he married in 2003, "and I've learned how, too. But we're sticking with Marshall's. We can't do biscuits any better."
In another corner of the South, Shana Campbell Jones, a 37-year-old environmental lawyer in Norfolk, Va., made a freezer-case confession.
"I believe in Sister Schubert," Jones said of the brand of frozen yeast rolls she serves at chicken-and-dressing-style family dinners that recall her Deep South youth. "I was raised to bake, but I don't feel too guilty about using her yeast rolls. I liked them before I even knew she's from Alabama, like my grandmother."
Buttermilk biscuits and yeast rolls surely are among the most fetish-ized of Southern foods. Like pit-cooked barbecue and skillet-fried chicken, quick breads, served hot from the oven, are defining dishes of the lexicon.
"A part of the placidity of the South comes from the sense of well-being that follows the heart-and-body-warming consumption of breads fresh from the oven," Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote in "Cross Creek Cookery" in 1942. "We serve cold baker's bread to our enemies, trusting that they will never impose on our hospitality again."
Contrary to what traditionalists might want outlanders to believe, though, freezer-case biscuits and rolls, especially par-baked versions that require no more than a quick brown in a hot oven, have been openly and often passionately adopted by Southerners with an elastic concept of what constitutes home cooking.
Two favored brands, Sister Schubert's and Marshall's, are now made under the watchful eye of the same Ohio-based corporation. "In the South, every woman has her own recipe for homemade yeast rolls," said Julia Reed, author of "Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns and Other Southern Specialties," out this month in paperback. "I'm not that much of a masochist," said Reed, a Greenville, Miss., native, whose party repertory includes tenderloin-stuffed Sister Schubert's rolls.
A cold look at history reveals that the region's devotion to biscuits and rolls owes a substantial debt to the Southerners who conceived, sold and profited from a succession of modern conceits.
Canned biscuit and roll dough was invented in the South in 1931, when Lively Willoughby of Louisville, Ky., at Ballard & Ballard Co., patented the pressurized foil sleeve process that Pillsbury later merchandised.
Today, canned biscuits and rolls remain, for many cooks, untenable cheats. (Jerry Clower, a Mississippi comedian, called them "whop biscuits," a derisive reference to the sound made when a can is whacked against the edge of a kitchen counter.)
And fast-food biscuits, popularized in the 1970s by Hardee's, a chain founded in Greenville, N.C., are more often consumed on the road than in the home.
But par-baked frozen rolls and biscuits, made with care and integrity, have won over a wide spectrum of cooks.
Donna Florio, a senior writer with Southern Living in Birmingham, Ala., said that the first time she tasted Sister Schubert's rolls she thought they were homemade.
"We were having some sort of breakfast meeting at the magazine," she said. "I told Judy Feagin, in the test kitchen, that I loved the rolls she served. And she said, in this rich, beautiful Alabama accent: 'You mean to tell me you haven't met Sister yet? If you like those, you need to make the acquaintance of Sister.' "
Southerners first made Sister's acquaintance about 20 years ago.
In 1989, Patricia Barnes, known since childhood as Sister, baked 20 pans of rolls for a frozen-foods fair to benefit St. Mark's Episcopal Church in her southern Alabama hometown of Troy. (At the time, Barnes was known to parishioners by her first husband's surname, Schubert; she has since remarried and taken the last name of her current husband, George Barnes.)
Barnes, now 57, got everything right. She used her grandmother's recipe. She dipped her Parker House-style yeast rolls in real butter. She baked her rolls until done, but not fully browned, and packaged them in round tins. She quickly sold out.
For the 1991 fair, she baked 300 tins. To meet that first big order, she jury-rigged a dough-proofing room by commandeering one of the church's Sunday school classrooms and outfitting it with a space heater. By 1993, she was employing 20 people at a makeshift bakery in what had been her father's furniture warehouse.
"I tried to be a Truett Cathy kind of employer," Barnes said, referring to the founder of the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, who, in accord with his Christian religious beliefs, decided not to open his stores on Sunday. "But we just had too many orders. So I told the ladies they could have church at work."
"They sang gospel as they worked," Barnes recalled on a recent drive west from Troy to the 87,000-square-foot plant she eventually built in Luverne, Ala., at the prow of an industrial park, behind the shed where the Crenshaw County Shrine Club stages its annual peanut boil. "And they kept that up until a few years ago, when the safety regulations said everybody needed to wear earplugs."
Each round pan of Sister Schubert's rolls comes with a back story. And that story has played well in the press. (In recent developments, Barnes has financed a foster-care home in Gorlovka, Ukraine, and written a book, "Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters," which she will self-publish this summer.) But word-of-mouth has spurred much of the company's growth.
In 2000, T. Marzetti, a packaged food company that is part of the Lancaster Colony Corp., bought the company for more than $40 million. It sells 12 varieties of Sister Schubert's products, including an orange yeast roll with bits of orange peel, in outlets nationwide, including Wal-Mart and Sam's Club. Patricia and George Barnes remain as vice president for research and development and vice president for operations, respectively.
"We didn't gee and haw together at first," Patricia Barnes recalled of her early tenure with the company, which also sells the New York brand of Texas Toast and the Romanoff brand of caviar. "They talked about butter-flavored oil and a few other things I wouldn't have," she continued. "But they saw the light."
T. Marzetti became the dominant producer of quality, Southern-style frozen baked goods in 2007 when it bought, for approximately $20 million, the Marshall Biscuit Co., based in the Mobile suburb of Saraland, Ala.
(Also in the game are Mary B's, a division of J&J Snack Foods of Pennsauken, N.J., and, on the high end, Callie's Charleston Biscuits, a South Carolina specialty baker.)
Compared with Sister Schubert's, Marshall's is venerable. Its deep roots in Mobile date back to 1924, when John Marshall opened the first in what would become a five-unit chain of Electrik Maid Bake Shops.
The specialty of the day at the coffee shop and bakery was lard-rich, buttermilk biscuits, split, toasted with butter and served in a bowl. (Natives of Mobile still favor toasted Marshall's biscuits, although they have developed other adaptations, including canapes made by scooping out the crumb and stuffing biscuits with deviled crab.)
By 1960, Marshall had set aside the retail end of his business and begun wholesaling tins of refrigerated par-baked biscuits. He won allegiances across the Deep South, but distribution was a problem. Marshall's was in bankruptcy in 1985 when Robbie Outlaw — scion of the Mobile family that grew the Morrison's Cafeteria chain to national prominence — purchased it.
Outlaw tinkered with the formula. He replaced the lard with vegetable shortening. He moved the products to the freezer case. Outlaw didn't have a Sister Schubert personality to lead the sales charge. But he had good biscuits.
"Flour, salt, baking power, shortening and buttermilk — that's it," Kent Dueitt, who has been mixing dough for Marshall's since 1977, said one recent morning. As he spoke, a long, unbroken sheet of dove-white, biscuit-thick dough moved down an assembly line, bound for a hexagonal die cutter and, eventually, a bank of convection ovens.
"We keep the dough cooled, to prevent the baking powder from activating, and we don't beat the dough up," Dueitt said. "We mix slow. We use a blend of cake flour and bread flour for softness and rise. And we still do lots of the work by hand."
The scene in Saraland — air feathered with flour, rectangular tin pans rattling in the foreground, walk-in convection ovens humming in the background — appears typical for the sort of plant that cranks out more than 500,000 biscuits a week.
So do the scenes at other Sister Schubert's plants in Luverne and Horse Cave, Ky. But the plants also rely upon the hand work associated with home cooking.
Stacking buttermilk biscuits at the Marshall's plant one recent morning, four to a row, 12 to a pan, Petra Djurdjevic could have been moving dough from a biscuit board to a baking sheet in her own kitchen.
Southern shoppers, it seems, like to know that someone has laid hands on their buttermilk biscuits and yeast rolls. But many prefer that those hands belong to someone else.