This morning, my friends Alan and Tammy sent me emails with the article from today’s NY Times about the White Lily mill in Knoxville closing.
Smucker’s has bought White Lily and they are making it up north. As of the end of *this month*, White Lily won’t be Southern any more! And not just that, but what makes White Lily what it is – the source of the wheat and the exact way it’s milled…well, here is the entire article and here are some excerpts:
FOR generations of Southern bakers, the secret to weightless biscuits has been one simple ingredient passed from grandmother to mother to child: White Lily all-purpose flour.
Biscuit dives and high-end Southern restaurants like Watershed in Atlanta and Blackberry Farm outside Knoxville use it. Blue-ribbon winners at state fair baking contests depend on it. On food lovers’ Web sites, transplanted Southerners share tips on where to find it, and some of them returning from trips back home have been known to attract attention when airport security officers detect a suspicious white dust on their luggage.
White Lily is distinctly Southern: it has been milled here in downtown Knoxville since 1883 and its white bags (extra tall because the flour weighs less per cup than other brands) are distributed almost solely in Southern supermarkets, although specialty stores like Williams-Sonoma and Dean & DeLuca have carried it at premium prices.
But at the end of June, the mill, with its shiny wood floors, turquoise and red grinders and jiggling armoire-size sifters, will shut its doors. The J. M. Smucker Company, which bought the brand a year ago, has already begun producing White Lily at two plants in the Midwest, causing ripples of anxiety that Southern biscuits will never be the same.
Maribeth Badertscher, a spokeswoman for the company, said the new White Lily was the result of thorough product testing and promised that customers “won’t know the difference.” But in a blind test for The New York Times, two bakers could immediately tell the old from the new.
The passion for White Lily is more than simple nostalgia.
“All you have to do is take a little bit in your hand and take some all-purpose flour in the other hand and just look at it,” said Shirley O. Corriher, the Atlanta-based author of “CookWise,” about the science of cooking, and a forthcoming companion volume called “BakeWise.” “There’s an incredible difference. It’s much, much finer, much whiter and much silkier. You’re going to get a finer textured cake.”
It may also explain why many Northerners’ attempts to replicate Southern delicacies fall flat. Low-protein flour absorbs less liquid, so a recipe designed for White Lily won’t work with other flours. Cake flour or another low-protein flour like Martha White are the closest substitutes.
Carolyn Durst, 62, a sweepstakes winner in the pie competition at the Kentucky State Fair, said, “I give pie crust demonstrations to my friends, and I tell them, No. 1, you’ve got to have White Lily flour.”
A blind test by two bakers, who were sent bags of the old and new product marked only A and B, underscored Ms. Corriher’s concern.
Zoellyn Smith, who worked in both quality control and research and development at the Knoxville plant, accurately identified the new product before she began to bake. Sample A, the new product, had “a grayish color” and made a “dense and chewy” cake, while Sample B, the old, made for silky, rather than stiff, dough and a “light and airy” cake.
“When I looked at just the flour I thought that Sample B was milled in Knoxville,” she said. “After performing the bakes there was no doubt.”
But it did not take a specialist in food technology and plant sciences to guess right. Ms. Hilton, the amateur baker, said, “There wasn’t a big difference, but I could tell the difference.” Even her family knew which batch was made with flour milled in the Midwest. “The biscuits came out just a little more dense, and the texture wasn’t quite as smooth.”
I sent an email this morning to Smuckers asking how I can tell when I go to the grocery store this weekend to buy sacks & sacks & sacks of White Lily whether it was milled in Knoxville or up north. I will update as soon as I hear.
I’m going to freeze bunches of it…
The Knoxville paper did a feature here where some workers at the Knoxville mill and readers share their White Lily recipes.