As many home-bound Americans began baking to feed and distract themselves from the coronavirus pandemic, Schanon Odell of Crown Pacific Fine Foods was making frantic phone calls to every flour mill in the country. Odell’s job at the Seattle-area specialty food distributor includes helping her grocery store clients keep flour in stock, and so she resolved to find anyone that might have it. One day in late March, she spent 10 straight hours calling and calling, only to get the same answer from everyone who picked up: all sold out.
But there was one exception: As she searched the internet for flour mills, “White Lily kept coming up,” Odell says. She was only vaguely aware of the special place that the flour occupies in the canon of Southern baking, but as she worked her way through the company’s phone tree, she focused less on what White Lily was and more on securing 4,000 cases of flour — about 160,000 pounds — to distribute to stores around the Pacific Northwest, like Zupan’s in Portland, Oregon, Kroger’s QFC stores, and independent shops like Red Apple Market on Seattle’s Beacon Hill.
The shipment of White Lily arrived at Red Apple Market just in time for Jill Lightner’s husband to replenish the flour stash that Lightner, a food writer, was quickly stress-baking her way through. “I had just been putting ‘buy more flour’ on the shopping list every time he went,” she says. When her husband returned with a bag of White Lily, announcing, “This is all they had,” Lightner, who had gone to high school in rural Virginia, knew what she had lucked into. “Why didn’t you buy 50 bags?” she asked.
The same scene played out from Iowa to San Jose, as White Lily flour appeared mysteriously on shelves far from its usual Southern distribution area. Bakers familiar with the product went to stores braced to find bottom-of-the-barrel flour, only to come upon the brand they had often wished they could get locally. From outposts in the North, Midwest, and West, they posted gleefully on social media. “When you find the flour, you make the biscuits,” said a baker in Wisconsin. In Brooklyn, a shopper wondered, “What is this magic happening with the flour supply chain?”
White Lily declined to comment on the expanded distribution to Eater, but David Ortega, an associate professor in the department of agriculture, food and resource economics at Michigan State University, points out that some of the recent flour distribution quirks can be tied to the significant loss of major wholesale customers like food service and bakeries, combined with high demand at the retail level. “One of the major obstacles to this switch was packaging,” he says over email — which means that any flour company that had recently stocked up on retail-size bags found itself best prepared to meet demand.
“Flour processing is much more mechanized (relative to say meat processing plants), so it hasn’t been affected by processing disruption to the extent that other sectors have,” Ortega adds. “My guess is that While Lily and other companies expanded their markets out of necessity (loss in food industry customers) and, to an extent, opportunity (surge in demand in supermarkets).”
Whatever the reason, it made many home bakers happy. Known for its soft, light texture, White Lily flour has long held a near-mythological status in the South as the secret to the perfect biscuit, much in the same way that New Yorkers believe that the city’s water is the secret to the perfect bagel. In The Gift of Southern Cooking, the renowned champion of the region’s foodways, Edna Lewis, named it as an essential ingredient to great biscuits. On her blog, Southern Souffle, the recipe developer, food writer, and biscuit-pop-up chef Erika Council echoed Lewis’s sentiment, writing that White Lily killed the “hard as a rock” and “difficult to make” biscuit myths.
And yet, despite the ostensible transportability of a bag of flour, finding White Lily outside of the Southeastern United States is normally only nominally easier than getting New York City tap water in Arizona. The only other time Lightner remembers seeing it for sale in Seattle was years ago, when she found a “daintily sized” bag at a Williams-Sonoma holiday pop-up for a premium price. She bought it anyway. When Atlantic writer Amanda Mull, who was born in Georgia, wrote about the brand in 2018, she reported that she couldn’t find any retailers who carried it north of Richmond, Virginia, or west of Oklahoma (though Surfas in Los Angeles does occasionally). You can find it on Amazon, though it’s sold there at about 500 percent of grocery store cost.
The legend of White Lily began in 1883, when it was founded in Knoxville, Tennessee. Its flour’s ethereal nature is partially attributable to the fact that it is milled from soft red winter wheat, which results in a flour with only 9 percent protein — significantly lower than King Arthur’s 11.7 percent or Gold Medal’s 10.5 percent. A flour’s protein content is important because it corresponds directly with how much gluten forms when the flour comes into contact with a liquid. For a strong loaf with structure and chewiness, bakers look for a high-protein flour, like bread flour, which has up to 13 percent protein. But for biscuits, lower protein content, and thus lower gluten, keeps them from becoming too dense.
But plenty of flours have lower protein levels: Pastry flour contains around 9 percent, and cake flour between 7 and 9 percent. White Lily’s true secret, according to a 2008 New York Times story, lies in its milling and bleaching processes. Its all-purpose flour is milled only from the heart of the wheat’s endosperm, the purest part, and is more finely milled and sifted than other flours — its packaging even boasts that it’s “Pre-Sifted.” Unlike many all-purpose flours, it is also bleached with chlorine, which weakens the flour’s proteins. The result is so light that the White Lily website warns that when measuring by volume, rather than weight, two extra tablespoons per cup of flour are required in standard recipes.
When the J.M. Smucker Co. bought White Lily in 2007, it closed the company’s Knoxville mill and moved production to the Midwest, much to the dismay of many of the flour’s fans. White Lily had previously gone through more than a half-dozen corporate owners, including national names like Tyson Foods and Archer Daniels Midland. In 2018, Smucker sold it yet again, this time to Hometown Food Company, the parent company of Pillsbury. But despite how often it has changed hands, White Lily has managed to remain quintessentially Southern enough that Lightner compares it to a souvenir: “If I am near a Winn-Dixie or a Piggly Wiggly, I’m going to buy it and bring it back,” she says, “along with a suitcase full of grits.”
For her part, Odell, the specialty food distributor, is surprised to see how well the flour has resonated with retailers outside of the South. “Every day, people are ordering,” she says. “I think people are recognizing it and want to purchase it.”
Dannie Sue Balakas is one them. Born in Tennessee and currently living in West Michigan, she was thrilled when White Lily showed up at her local Meijer, and started buying a bag every time she shopped there. Because shoppers are still limited to one bag per person, she rations it accordingly. “I’ve been so worried I’m going to run out, I haven’t used it for anything but biscuits,” she says, describing those biscuits as “super fluffy and the best I’ve ever had.”
Fear of running out is a legitimate concern: Shelves in the South were also emptied of flour, and while Odell says her supply has been mostly consistent, it hasn’t been seamless. For Dean Hasegawa, the general manager of the Red Apple where Lightner bought her White Lily, the store’s White Lily purchase was a one-time deal so that Hasegawa could cover the flour shortage — and even with it, he still had to re-bag and price out 50-pound food-service bags of other flours into retail sizes. “It’s not something I will normally stock,” he says, and while he heard some excitement over it, he believes that most of his customers were simply happy to see flour.
Still, the customer enthusiasm inspires Odell. Her local QFC stores talked about wanting to keep White Lily on their shelves even as flour stocks normalize, but the Cincinnati-based buyer from Kroger, which owns QFC, insisted that people in the Northwest wouldn’t buy Southern flour. “I’d like to keep it if I can,” says Odell, but first she needs to prove that people care about White Lily and not just flour in general. “Maybe when the dust settles, I’ll be able to tell if it’s a viable product,” she says.
But for true biscuit fanatics, White Lily’s all-purpose flour isn’t even the true prize: In West Michigan, Balakas has “been praying” that stores will start stocking its coveted self-rising flour. But even if they don’t, you can mail order it from Walmart (with free shipping, if you order enough else) or, per White Lily’s website, simply add 1½ teaspoons of baking powder and ½ teaspoon of salt to each cup of the all-purpose flour. While they may be effective, though, neither of those methods have the same magic as wandering the baking aisle expecting nothing and coming upon a treasure — and, in, the process recapturing a tiny fragment of the joy that grocery shopping once held.