Two women stood with noses pressed to the window at Stomping Ground on Mt.
Vernon Avenue in Del Ray. "Oh, no," one of them said. "I didn't know it was
closed on Monday. I've eaten here three times since they opened in May. I love
their salads; they are so fresh." Disappointed, they head down the street looking
for a second choice.
Nicole Jones, chef at Stomping Ground, said, "the Farmer's salad is different every day
made with what's fresh at the market." The front window advertises a crab cake sammie
(their nickname for sandwich) on a house potato roll with homemade tater chips and
pickles. But the mainstay of the menu is biscuits — with homemade peach jelly or plum
jam, with sorghum butter, pimento cheese or nutella, all made by the house. Or "The
Favorite" made with organic eggs, Benton bacon from Tennessee and Hooks cheese
from Wisconsin. She said by using the best ingredients they can focus on the basics
and don't need a lot of special sauces. On the other hand, her own favorite is the "Not
So Classic" which has fried chicken with za'Atar spices, honey, hot sauce, red onion
and benne seed tahini.
Jones measures flour into a large aluminum bowl. "I use white Lily cake flour. Southern
grandmothers won't use anything else." She says she spent her formative years in
Georgia. She uses equal parts butter and Crisco. The secret is to have it really cold.
"The colder it is, the higher they rise." Jones uses both baking powder and baking soda.
"One mistake people make is to put in too much baking powder to help it rise. But then it
has a weird metallic aftertaste."
One fat goes in first and her hands squeeze it between her fingers until it breaks down it
into pea size pieces. Jones said, “I like to feel it. With a pastry blender you can't. The
only way to describe it is to smudge it — I guess I just invented a new cooking term."
Next Jones makes a well in the flour mixture and mixes in the buttermilk with a wooden
spoon. “The wooden spoon is important. I don't know why. This is a critical juncture
where the liquid hits the gluten; the clock starts ticking." Then she turns the dough twice
and forms it into a rectangle about 11/2" thick. Carefully pushing down an aluminum
form, she cuts out the biscuits side by side. "This is another place people screw up; they
turn the cutter. You have these nice flaky layers, called laminating the dough, and the
last thing you want to do is pinch the dough by turning the cutter. "We're always fighting
Jones said making biscuits can be different every day. If it feels on the tacky side you
add more flour; if it's humid outside, you add less buttermilk. It can depend on the
thickness of the buttermilk, the weather, the amount of patting you do. She said this can
be difficult for restaurants that are in the consistency business. In the beginning the
menu was more extensive, but then Jones realized she was just coming up with novel
ideas for the sake of making dishes. Now she is focusing on her original goal: good food
and good service. She says she encourages the wait staff to sample everything so they
can translate it to the customers. She said, "Good food can't save bad service." The
menu has now expanded to dinner and includes onedish community dinners on
Thursdays and Fridays, fun things like a low country boil.
Jones spends a lot of time educating. "I take that really seriously." But she said, "I walk
a line between the excited, living and breathing food to something that doesn't land well
with the public." For instance, she tried sorghum butter with the biscuits. Sorghum is a
Southern substitute for molasses and goes back to the slave trade, as do many
Southern foods. Cassie Meddis, the manager, said, "They freaked out (in a good way)
about the sorghum butter honestly. I love the South. I miss it." But they have tried to
transplant Southern hospitality to Del Ray.
Peach jam cooks all day on a burner next to the biscuit counter. "It's been all about
peach this year because the peaches have been so good." On an average day the cook
makes 400600 biscuits in small batches so they can be served fresh and warm. Jones
says everyone's biscuits look different but “we're very comfortable with them if they look
unique.” Her grandmother in Lithuania, who made Jones fall in love with food used to
say, "You can learn a lot about a person from their biscuits."