Ann Birney, who lives in Admire, Kan., outside Emporia, travels the world portraying Amelia Earhart. Birney’s baking also is top-flight — especially when it comes to her “cloud” biscuits.
Her next appearance as the famed aviator will be this weekend at the 20th Annual Amelia Earhart Festival in Atchison, Kan.
When not on the road, there’s no place like home for this native Kansan, who enjoys cooking for her spouse, Joyce Thierer. Together they enjoy entertaining friends and an extended family of a son, a granddaughter and two great-grandsons.
Q: Ninty-five years after Amelia Earhart received her first flight instruction, why do you think people are still captivated by her story?
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A: Amelia embodied the spirit of determination, a willingness to take risks, and above all the ability to have fun doing it. Amelia wasn’t arrogant and would openly admit she wasn’t the best aviator or writer, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing her passions. I think this is why so many find her inspirational.
When I portray Amelia, I’m not really channeling her, but I certainly identify with her and see the parallels in our lives. She was close to her grandparents living in Atchison, with a problematic father, and my family circumstances were similar. Amelia kept a scrapbook of women who inspired her when she was young, and I would read every biography I could about inspirational women. One of my favorite stories is how Amelia would sled fast down Second Avenue in Atchison, while I have similar sledding memories that happened on Topeka’s Quinton Heights hill.
Q: Did Amelia bake biscuits as well as you do?
A: I’m not aware of documentation that Amelia herself ever cooked or baked, and she had very little time to do so. Amelia’s husband, George Palmer Putnam, who was an excellent promoter, had the press take pictures of her at home. The closest I’ve ever come to documenting Amelia cooking is seeing a picture of her serving tea to George in their Rye, New York, home. That’s the closest I’ve come to proving her prowess in the kitchen. She might have boiled water.
Q: What is your own personal culinary history?
A: I am the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter and cherished the women in my family. My mother, Elizabeth Dunhaupt, still lives in Topeka, and when we were growing up, biscuit dough was made by whacking a can on the edge of a counter. Now Mother’s retirement job is baking, and she loves being neighborly and sharing with others. She is a determined, smart woman and is an example to keep living your best life every day, as she earned her master’s degree at the young age of 60.
It was my mother’s mother, Elizabeth Ann Richards — or Betsy as she was called — who informed my life philosophy. Betsy lived through the Depression and would always leave you by saying, “Don’t work too hard.”
Q: So why share this biscuit recipe?
A: This recipe comes from Betsy’s recipe box, written in her own hand, so it is a treasure to me. The first time I made biscuits they were pitiful and hard as rocks. It is amazing I ever made them again. I don’t remember why I felt I needed to be successful at this one skill or how long it was before my second attempt, but my motivation to most things culinary is that I like to eat and I like to nurture people. Because we live off the beaten path, when people visit they often stay over. If they make that commitment to come, I promise them homemade biscuits for breakfast.
The secret to good biscuits is to handle them very little, and I am a minimalist when it comes to cooking tools. I have had a pastry cutter and biscuit cutters, but gave them up for a fork and drinking glass that is 2 1/4 inches in diameter.
My granddaughter, Alicea Wisneski, has portrayed Amelia’s sister, Muriel Morrissey, and she keeps saying she is going to learn to make my biscuits when she moves back from Albuquerque. Cooking and baking together can also be a way to hand down recipes, and most importantly the stories that go with them.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. Send email to her at firstname.lastname@example.org to nominate a cook.
Amelia Earhart Festival
Features a carnival, music, food, children’s activities, crafts and a symposium at Benedictine College. Friday and Saturday (carnival is Wednesday-Saturday). Atchison, Kan. visitatchison.com/events. Most events free; prices vary on other events.
Birney’s “Cloud” Biscuits
Makes 10 (2 1/4 -inch) biscuits
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided use
2 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening
2/3 cup milk
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, stir 2 cups flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together until well combined.
Using a pastry cutter or fork, incorporate shortening into dry mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs.
Beat egg into milk and add to floured mixture. Stir until mixture just comes together, taking care to not overmix. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup flour onto a clean board and turn dough out onto it. Gently knead dough 3 to 4 times, incorporating flour on board, as needed.
With hands, pat dough into a circular form that is 1/2 inch thick. Using a 2 1/4 -inch biscuit cutter or drinking glass dredged in flour, press out circles of dough. Place rounds on an ungreased baking sheet.
Gently press together any unused dough and repeat cutting-out process until all dough is used, placing all rounds on baking sheet. Place in oven and bake for about 10 minutes or until golden brown.
Serve immediately out of oven with butter, jam or honey.
Per biscuit: 232 calories (44 percent from fat), 11 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 22 milligrams cholesterol, 28 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 317 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.