It’s strawberry time again in Vermont, and I’m excited even though I do carry a bit of baggage about the season. The “baggage” dates back to the time we grew 2 acres of them on the farm and continually fought strawberry-growing enemies like witch grass, cedar waxwings and deer. Then there’s the universal strawberry gripe, picking (my personal record for a day was 90 quarts in the rain). There’s one part of strawberry season, though, that’s nothing but sweet for me — the biscuits. Without the biscuits, there might as well be no strawberries.
Being both a farm boy and an avid eater, biscuits have always played an important role in my life. I’ll never forget the times Grandpa and Grandma Morse invited me into their house at noon for dinner (in farm lingo, “dinner” is at noon and “supper” is in the evening). The finale for every one of those meals? Biscuits and maple syrup, of course. And my mother made biscuits like nobody else, that is except possibly a woman named Mary-Jo Hewitt, aka, the “Biscuit Basket Lady.”
Mary-Jo came into our lives here at Morse Farm a long time ago when our retail business was young and strawberry fields trademarked our early summer. At that time she was a Vermont “summer person” from Connecticut with three small kids and a hankerin’ to bake. She had the personality of a whirlwind, a good whirlwind; everywhere she “touched down” she spread love instead of destruction.
One day she came into our stand during strawberry season. We’d never seen the short, stocky woman with three kids in tow before but she went right to our strawberry area.
“No biscuits?” she boomed. To us, it was simple oversight; to her, blasphemy!
“You’ll have them by this afternoon” she announced, already heading to her car. She reappeared that afternoon with a huge supply of neatly packaged biscuits, fork-split English muffins and three types of cookies.
My mother worried that it was too much stuff, but said we’d give it a try. By 5 p.m., she was calling Mary-Jo for a reorder.
That was the beginning of a long relationship. Mary-Jo not only served our customers for years with her delectable baked goods but “spread her wings” to other stores and farmers’ markets. While her kids were young, she’d return in the winter to Connecticut where her husband Clayton taught at a college. Mary-Jo, however, was destined to become a full-time Vermonter.
She also was destined to become “The Biscuit Basket Lady.” Shortly after she started baking for us, a friend taught her the rudiments of basketmaking and instantly Mary-Jo the whirlwind was hooked. She soon became a master basketmaker with students of her own and the author of a book titled, “The Biscuit Basket Lady, Recipes from a Vermont Kitchen.”
Ours was not only a business relationship but social as well. She’d come over to my parents’ house for potluck meals and sing-alongs. I’ll never forget those sing-alongs. Dot Morse at the piano and Harry and Mary-Jo singing a potpourri, from the sacred to the off-color.
The only thing that carried more than her singing voice was her laughter; I’ll always remember that laughter, oft and loud, following her everywhere she went.
She attended a few events where I played my trombone; she came to me early on with a request — hell, no, a demand: “You’re going to play ‘When the Saints go Marching In’ at my funeral.”
I never thought much about it because she was so vibrant and healthy; Mary-Jo Hewitt struck me as a person who would never die.
Then one day I heard that she had cancer. She put up an amazing fight and beat the odds longer than anyone else would have but passed away one summer day. When her daughter Julia called to tell me, she also reminded me about the “Saints.”
“She wants a rousing rendition,” Julia said. Mary-Jo had put it in writing.
Her service was at the Old Meeting House. My aunt June and I were in the choir loft high above a huge congregation, she at the piano and me with my trombone, when I made an impulsive decision to play a joke on Mary-Jo. The service was about to end with the “Saints” and I whispered to June, “We’re going to do the first strain as a dirge — trust me.”
June looked at me like I was crazy but there was no time to talk it over; we started playing anemically, like a batch of biscuits without the baking powder.
Mary-Jo’s family sat below with shocked, puzzled looks on their faces. Approaching the end of the first strain I put down my horn. “Wait a minute, stop the music” I boomed in my best Jimmy Durante voice. “Mary-Jo’s sending me a message from heaven and she’s saying ‘Burr, get the lead outa your biscuits... MOVE THAT THING!’”
I counted it off “One, two, one” and glissandoed into a rousing rendition of “When the Saints go Marching In.”
The service ended that day with everyone grinning like maniacs and dancing in the aisles, even the preacher!
I knew that Mary-Jo Hewitt, Biscuit Basket Lady, singer, saint, danced right along, too.
Burr Morse lives in East Montpelier.MORE IN Letters
- Most Popular
- Most Emailed
- MEDIA GALLERY