My grandmother, “Mema”, was a wonderful cook, producing Southern food in classic grandmotherly style: something was always just coming out of the oven,just for you, whenever you wandered into her kitchen. There she was, in one of those shapeless cotton shift apron dresses she always wore at home, stooping slightly, smiling warmly and crinkling her green eyes as she pushed the butter dish toward you and heaped a few sweet potato biscuits or the yeast rolls we’ve always called “Mema Rolls” onto a plate. Mema’s kitchen seemed like heaven to us hungry grandchildren on cold winter mornings when our families gathered in at her home Sweetwater for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
I’ve searched and searched and can’t find a single picture of Mema in her kitchen, but I think you can imagine it: small, all of the meager counter space being used at all times for important things like rolls rising, jars waiting for to be filled with vegetables for canning, a big pot of tea steeping, an old metal percolator burping coffee sounds. Delectable aromas at all times. A squeaky back door with a window looking out onto a small yard patrolled by a huge, old scarred-up black tomcat named Midnight. A sturdy formica and chrome table from the early 50s standing right in the middle of the activity, surrounded by six chairs that matched it – and several others that didn’t. Mema’s table was set up for maximum capacity.
A giant double-door refrigerator/freezer was always packed full of fresh and frozen food, because, although she lived alone, Mema was ready for a crowd at all times; by golly, no one would go hungry at her house! (We could have fed most of Sweetwater with the frozen food we cleaned out of her freezer when she moved in with my aunt toward the end of her life.)
Born in 1910, Mema came of age during the Great Depression and the resourcefulness she developed during that time was one of the hallmarks of her personality, in addition to her strong faith. In fact, she continued to work until she was in her late 80s, acting as a companion and helper for her next-door neighbor, who was actually younger than my grandmother. She called this job “sitting with Miz Butler”. Mema, whose name was Memery Frank Harvell (there’s a story there!) was a wonderful role model for her children – and many others – and probably one of the reasons I get so much joy out of cooking from old family recipes. Which brings me to today’s subject and recipe: “Mema Rolls”, AKA “Nana Rolls” by some of my cousins.
Mema’s rolls are legendary across the family and staples on all of our holiday dinner repertoires as my Dad and his siblings carried on the tradition, each in their own families. At Glover Gardens, Dad was always responsible for bringing the rolls to holiday dinners. Dad is in heaven making rolls with Mema now, and on his last Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with us in 2016, he was unable to eat because of esophagus problems and other health issues. It was time for me to figure it out.
But first, there was a collection of Mema Rolls recipes to sift through (pun intended). The treasured formula had been documented many times – and with some variation – over the years, and Dad and his siblings were pretty much making it from memory by now. But I needed to figure out which one to use, and how to fill in the blanks on the missing steps my elders had somehow absorbed by osmosis. Check out the resources I had at my fingertips below – 5 different variations of the marvelous pillows of yeasty goodness, with names ranging from “Rolls”, “Bread or Rolls”, “Refrigerator Rolls”, and one version that used condensed milk, “Eaglebrand Rolls”. Richness! One of the versions of the recipe was published in my parents’ cookbook, which I’ve written about before, also a source a richness. That’s probably the one that my Dad used.
These artifacts are gold in terms of family history and heritage, and in fact, on one of the recipe cards, there’s a notation: “Mema wrote this”. It looks like her handwriting and makes me wonder if she knew it would be a future treasure. Or was it one of my aunts, making sure that generations to come would know the recipe was from the hand of the master roll-maker? (Dear Aunts, if you’re reading this, let me know.)
I looked at all these recipes last Thanksgiving (2016), figured out what was in common and gave the Mema Rolls a try, calling Dad once or twice for consultation. I needed his help: the amounts of flour were different in some of the recipes, the oven temperature varied and they were written in family shorthand. There were just not enough words to explain exactly how to make these legendary rolls.
This endeavor was bittersweet; I wanted Dad to be proud and happy that I was carrying on the family tradition (he was), but it would have been so much better if he could have tasted them. As always, Dad brought his camera to Thanksgiving, which would be his last, and he took this picture of my first-ever Mema Rolls. I cherish it.
Don’t they look good? But I made a big mistake when making the rolls last year: I didn’t write down the steps and the resolution to all the tiny questions I had for Dad. And I just couldn’t publish the recipe in its family shorthand state, because that would leave it to the reader to ask all the same questions. So my new daughter-in-law and I tackled it together this year. The Girl Who is Always Hungry (her self-chosen name in the blog) did the work, and I wrote everything down as we figured it out. We were both pleased and proud, and I could feel the spirits of Dad and Mema smiling on us. As I’ve said before: “Family history: love on a plate.”
Mema Rolls (makes about 5 dozen)
1 cup plus 2 cups warm water (between 110°F – 115°F)
2 1/4 tsp dry yeast (1 package)
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp sugar, separated
2/3 cup shortening (not oil)
1 scant tbsp salt
7-8 cups flour, separated (start with 2 cups, then 5, then the optional last one)
In a small bowl, combine the yeast and 2 tbsp of sugar with 1 cup of warm water, stirring to dissolve. Set aside and let stand until foamy. (If the yeast mixture doesn’t produce bubble and foam within 5 minutes, discard the mixture and start over again with different yeast.)
In a large bowl or a mixer, stir together the remaining 2 cups of warm water, 1/2 cup of sugar, salt and shortening, then add two cups of flour and mix. Then add the yeast mixture and mix until smooth. Add 5 cups of the remaining flour in two batches and stir by hand, or, if you’re using the mixer, mix on low speed (using the dough hook) until you have a smooth, soft dough, adding in the last cup of flour if the dough is too sticky to form a ball. Knead until the dough feels elastic, about 3 minutes with the dough hook in the mixer or 5 minutes by hand.
Coat a medium bowl thoroughly with cooking spray and place the dough ball in it, turning to coat all surfaces. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for at least two hours or up to a week.
When you are ready to bake the rolls, flour your hands and then shape and finish as desired (see below). Put the rolls in pans or on cookie sheets, then cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Bake at 425° for 12-14 minutes.
Shaping the Rolls
Simple Squares (this is what The Girl Who is Always Hungry and I did and is the easiest and quickest of the options)
Divide the dough into four sections (after it has been refrigerated). Loosely roll or pat out a section on a lightly floured cutting board or pastry board in a large rectangle to a thickness of about 1 inch, then cut into 2″ x 2″ squares. Place on a greased cookie sheet, then cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Repeat for the remaining sections. Bake as directed.
Note: The Girl Who is Always Hungry did a neat trick when she was shaping the rolls. There are little bits of dough left from the edges after cutting the squares, and instead of combining and rolling them out again to make them into squares, she baked the little bits and called them cocktail-sized rolls. They were marvelous and had the added bonus of being just right for one-bite tasting.
Parkerhouse (this is how Mema usually made them)
In a small bowl, melt a stick of butter. Divide the dough into four sections (after it has been refrigerated). Loosely roll or pat out a section on a lightly floured cutting board or pastry board to a thickness of about 1 inch and use a round cookie cutter to cut the rolls. Dip each roll into the butter until it is covered on all sides, then fold it in half, pressing it together slightly, and put it on a cookie sheet or in a pan, then cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Repeat for the remaining sections. Bake as directed.
In a small bowl, melt a stick of butter. Pat out the dough on a lightly floured cutting board or pastry board to a thickness of about 2 inches, then pinch off small pieces and shape into balls (about 1 inch in diameter) and roll them in the butter, then put them in the muffin tin, three to a section. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Bake as directed.
More How-To Stuff
Note: you can either arrange the rolls with space between them on a cookie sheet, which will provide more territory to get browned, or have them almost touching in a pie pan, which will keep them soft on the sides. If you decide to have them touching, be sure to use one of the butter approaches listed above.
Another note: if you’d like a shiny crust, add an egg wash. Beat the white of an egg and about a teaspoon of water in a small bowl and brush it onto the rolls with a pastry brush just before baking.
And yet another note: you can bake the rolls in different batches at different times, which is probably why one of the names is Refrigerator Rolls. Imagine the dough in your fridge, just sitting in there waiting to be shaped and baked, so that you can have a few rolls with your dinner even on a weeknight when you’re in a time-crunch frenzy. This is how Mema accomplished her grandmotherly magic trick of always having something just coming out of the oven, just for you, whenever you wandered into her kitchen.
Another memory preserved, another recipe shared, another way to remember you, Dad, til I see you again.
Outtakes: I was so busy writing everything down and being the sous chef / prepping for The Girl Who is Always Hungry, that I did a lousy job taking pictures of the process. Here are a few, anyway.
Holiday dinners are about tradition, traditional recipes and taste memories that carry meaning beyond anything our taste buds can comprehend; here are some from my family’s table:
The yeast rolls from “Mema’s” recipe, almost the basis for a religion (you know I’m right).
The stuffing/dressing. It.Must.Be.Right. There’s a whole, as-yet unpublished story about the evolution of the dressing in my family, a North-South conflict that threatened my parents’ marriage until it was resolved. I’ll come back to that later, but before Christmas, because I promised a dressing devotee that I’d document it.
That green bean casserole that no one should like because it has all those extra-processed ingredients – hello, “French”-friend onions from a can!!!??? Someone in my family always manages to sneak that dish in, and they all look at me to see if I will break into food-snob mode and castigate them. This year, I relaxed my standards and had a few bites at Thanksgiving. Surprisingly, the world didn’t stop spinning on its axis. Yet.
The faux cranberry-something in a can (another anathema to me, but hey, some of my loved ones swear by it, and so does Rick Bragg). To counter this abomination, I actually make cranberry relish from scratch, and I’m usually the only one who eats it. I’m ok with that.
Sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping (where o’ where did that come from???)
The fresh creamed corn made from a 75-year old recipe.
That last bit, the creamed corn, is the subject of today’s post. This is serious business.My Dad always made my grandmother Mema’s creamed corn (once she was finished making it; she’s been doing Thanksgiving for the angels since 2000). Dad earnestly took Mema’s recipe and made it his own. The documentation of her recipe is below, from a school project my aunt undertook years ago.
My aunt’s notes below the instructions are a testimonial:
This was the way I had eaten corn all my life until I married. It was a big let-down to try canned cream corn and I have made it a point to use this recipe often.”
I wanted to get the latest take on this, so in 2015, I asked Dad, via email:
Dad – I found Mema’s recipe for creamed corn (from Aunt Lynda). It used corn, butter, water, salt and pepper. I think you said you used cream instead, and white pepper. Is that right?
He was immediately forthcoming, as this was an important issue in the family:
Kim, last year I followed mom’s recipe to the letter and I’m sure you remember it had too much butter. This year I followed my recipe with just a lot of white pepper, maybe a tablespoon of butter and less than a cup of water. Much better.
Dad is gone now. I’m having a hard time believing that he will not be bringing creamed corn every year, or ever again. Last year at Thanksgiving (2016), because of an illness, he was out of the hospital but on a stomach feeding tube, and couldn’t eat – or even taste – anything, but he still made his famous creamed corn. Did I mention that this creamed corn is from scratch, starting with fresh corn on the cob and never, ever frozen or canned – don’t even think about it!
Dad was an amazing optimist; taking a bit of every dish at our 2016 Thanksgiving table of bounty, he made a to-go container that he froze for a time in the future when he would be able to eat again. That time didn’t come. He left us in June of this year, never having gotten clearance to eat normally again, never thawing and enjoying that belated Thanksgiving feast. I miss him every day. But I feel his presence every day, too.
But here I go digressing again. Let’s do the recipe! This year, I made the creamed corn myself for the first time in advance of our 2017 Thanksgiving celebration. Hoping not to create a family controversy, I made some minor modifications to update the classic recipe while preserving its simple elegance. Since no one noticed, I think I’m in the clear. The major differences were that I used cream instead of water, added a bit more of a savory taste with a small amount of sautéed leeks, and the secret ingredient – ground nutmeg.
Using the vintage corn scraper handed down from my father and grandmother, and with their recipe notes as a guide, I was deep in the heart of family taste memories when I made this dish.
Harvell Family Creamed Corn (serves 8-10)
8 large cobs of fresh corn
1 tbsp. butter
1/4 cup thinly sliced and chopped leeks
1/4 heavy cream
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg or about 50 scrapes of fresh nutmeg (preferred)
1 green onion, very thinly sliced
Shuck the corn cobs and wash off any stray silk. Use a corn scraper or knife to cut all of the kernels from the cobs, collecting them in a large bowl.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, then add the leeks and sauté for 5-7 minutes until they are soft and translucent. Add the corn and “corn milk” and continue to sauté on medium for 7-10 minutes until the mixture is thickened and the corn is soft. Add the cream, salt and white pepper and cook for about 5 more minutes until the cream has thickened. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if necessary.
Serve hot and garnish with the sliced green onion.
Note: The creamed corn will keep for several days in the fridge, so you can make it early. It won’t seem like a large amount, but it is very rich, so a small serving is just right.
The end product is a rich, creamy dish that makes you nostalgic for the old days when life was simpler, people were kinder and you could borrow an egg from your neighbor, even if you never experienced any “old days” in that way.
Check out my post about the usefulness of a corn scraperhere, and check out this other blogfor the deep-dive into the mechanics of the use of a scraper. And let me know if you make the Harvell Family Creamed Corn for your holiday table.
Thanksgiving weekend, eight of us family members spanning three generations packed into my Honda Pilot and headed down to the Bolivar Peninsula where I grew up. We were on a mission to visit Dad’s favorite restaurant down there, and remember him. It was a perfect autumn day to walk the beach and reminisce.
So of course, I wrote a simple little haiku:
back home at the beach the day after thanksgiving remembering Dad
When I looked at the pictures later, I saw each of us drifting in our separate thoughts:
that day at the beach my son was looking forward ~ I was looking back
Somehow, Dad was there with each of us, in that place where we have so many memories of him. I know I can always find him when I look out to sea.
the salty air’s kiss joins the sundancing-sparkles: Dad’s eternal hug
For a look into what it was like to grow up along the beach on the Bolivar Peninsula, check out my days by the water. Dad really liked that poem, and I cherish his comment on the post.
Today, November 29, is the 51st anniversary of my brother’s birth. He left us too soon, in 2013, but as the years go by I find that I can focus more on the joys of his life and less on the tragedy and heartbreak of his death. It feels like finally catching your breath again after having run for a long, long way.
Take a look at these pictures from his first birthday and celebrate his life with me, if you will. The photos come from the “Big Green Book,” a monster of a scrapbook that my parents started when they first married and continued for years afterward. Dad made this clumsy 18′ x 24″ cache of memories from pegboard and cabinet hinges; he was then responsible for most of the photography. Mom painted the behemoth bright green, did the legwork to get the photos developed, and kept the scrapbook up to date, complete with captions. You can see Mom’s faint handwriting in the two pages memorializing Steve’s first birthday below.
1st Birthday – Presents
1st Birthday – Cake
I pulled a few of these priceless photos out to share them, honor Steve’s birthday and take another step in the healing process. I’m very excited because I don’t think my nieces (my brother’s daughters) have ever seen them.
The captions below the photos are my Mom’s original words from the scrapbook. Enjoy the joy on that beautiful baby face.
Can’t you just feel the happiness radiating in that tiny kitchen 50 years ago today? I can, and I’m grateful for the memory.
I’m grateful for so many things, really. Grateful to have had a brother to grow up with, play with, tease, teach and love. Grateful to have had parents who were always there, and who valued life’s little celebrations and small moments enough to capture them for posterity. Grateful that my Dad and my Aunt-Mom made me the keeper of family history so that I have access to these marvelous memory-artifacts. Grateful for the days gone by that can be savored and honored but never retrieved, and the days ahead filled with unknown joys and more small moments to celebrate.
Happy birthday, dear brother. You left us too soon, but in many ways, you are still with us, and always will be.
My grandfather was an amazing man. A geophysicist, he was quiet, brilliant, circumspect, pragmatic, a lifelong learner in the fields of math and science and leader in oil exploration – and yet he was so faithfully loving and supportive of a creative like me, his oldest grandchild and just about his polar opposite in terms of interests and passions.
Grandpa was strong and silent like so many men of his age who served in WWII and saw things they could never describe and didn’t care to remember. Tom Brokaw called them The Greatest Generation in his influential book of the same name; I just call myself lucky that this first lieutenant in the Air Force fell in love with my grandmother, a divorcé with a tiny daughter, and married her in 1942.
That tiny daughter was my Mom, and this gentle, studious man adopted her as his own, treating her the same as the other children he and Grandma went on to have. I didn’t know Grandpa wasn’t my Mom’s biological father / my biological grandfather for years, and when I found out, it didn’t matter in the least. We were his, and he was ours.
(photos with captions are excerpts from a slide show created by my Dad for my grandmother’s 90th birthday)
A true explorer, Grandpa’s career in oil exploration took him all over the world; he was eventually VP of Geophysics for Superior Oil (now ExxonMobil). His remarkable career was followed by adventures on the sea, as his retirement began with a 42-foot sailboat and trips that sometimes included lucky grandchildren like my brother and me.
The rigors of sailing gave way to land-based adventures as my grandparents mounted an RV in their 70s and traveled throughout the country, visiting national parks and family, arriving just in time for birthdays and births (including my son’s). Their retirement together was rich in experiences fueled by water, wind and land – and love of family.
Today would have been Grandpa’s 98th birthday. To honor and remember him, I’m sharing the poem I wrote for his funeral in 2002.
Water, Wind and Land: Metaphors for a Geophysicist (for Grandpa)
we are all archeologists now
sifting through our memories of you
sorting the bits and pieces we find
to put them back together
in what will become our lasting “mind pictures” of you
sometimes sifting and sorting alone
sometimes together with your other loves ones
turning our memory fragments this way and that
to see where they fit
and make a clearer picture
all of my finds in this archeological dig of grief
are geo-metaphors for a geophysicist:
~ water, wind and land ~
for you were not a man of words
you were a man of deeds
my dig finds full sails and stormy skies
radars and Lorans
dolphin fish and egrets’ cries
a wood-hulled boat, a lake cabin, a becalming
your thoughtful brown eyes
your “I love you’s” were spoken in geo-metaphor:
~ water, wind and land ~
“help me steer the boat, Kimmie”
“Stevie, let me show you how to tie a slip knot”
“Of course girls can shoot skeet!”
for you were not a man of words
you were a man of deeds
I dig deeper, contemplative, archeologist-turned sociologist
looking for meaning
and I find you are an underground river
strong, constant, clear and sure
your life’s waters carried bloodlines and love-lines
lifelines guiding through shifting sands
~ water, wind and land ~
my finds are home-baked bread
and spectacular jams
a well-stocked RV
crossing ferries and dams
Grandma’s letters with your P.S:
“Math and science, math and science!”
recognized clearly – then and now –
as geo-metaphor love, all your best
~ water, wind and land ~
you were a man of deeds
~ water, wind and land ~
we dig and sort
together and apart
in the museums of our hearts
~ water, wind and land ~
Grandpa and me at my first wedding, way back in the 80s. Those pearls were borrowed from my grandmother, one of the many, many gifts he brought her from his world travels. His finds, which included on the one end spears and art from Nigeria and on the other end, jewelry like these pearls and a gorgeous raw emerald, have been given to all of my cousins. I got the pearls.
In his later years, Grandpa channeled his natural curiosity and scientific attention to detail into cooking, mostly bread-baking and jam-making. He made the same recipes again and again, meticulously documenting small differences until he had them perfected. Christmas stocking gifts in those years were highly coveted jars of his homemade jellies. I treasure the memory of our long talks about cooking from those days. I also inherited some of his knives and big pots, which I consider to be heirlooms on par with the pearls.
Rest in peace, dear man, and bless you for teaching us about water, wind and land – and love.
My son and I did some reorganization of his room a couple of weekends ago, a natural progression as he moves through his sophomore year in college. At this stage, just as many items go into the giveaway pile as the “must keep memories” box in the attic.
We did find some treasures, though, as we processed a whole chest of drawers bulging with the history of his childhood, the objects providing a physical testimony about his youthful interests and experiences.
There were signed baseballs from his Little League days, those times when he earned the game ball from his coaches, men who seemed like titans to us at the time but were simply eager Dads looking to provide a good experience for their sons. Unbeknown to us, our little one was a “late bloomer” in Little League. The coach called me one spring night back in 2004 to tell me he had drafted Thomas onto his team, and asked me about his experience.
“Experience?” I was confused.
“Yes, what positions has he played?”
“None, this is his first season.”
“Really? He hasn’t played before? He doesn’t know anything about the game?”
“He’s only 6 years old?!” I was still confused.
“My son started just shy of his 4th birthday. We even have pictures of him playing catch in his diapers as a toddler.”
This is going to be a challenge, I realized. Only 6 years old and he’s already behind.
Despite this inauspicious start, Thomas acquitted himself admirably in his 8 years in Little League. A lefty, he became a dependable and sometimes awesome pitcher, and a capable hitter, delivering mostly singles and doubles. He never really mastered the art of stealing bases or sliding, which told us to focus our college scholarship hopes and dreams in other areas. This is why we call him our Musical Millennial rather than our Pitching Prodigy.
We had some really good times during the Little League days. Championships won and lost, good-natured rivalries with his classmates on other teams, frenzied times between the pickup at after-school day care and the 6 p.m. warmup on the baseball field when dinner was a 30-second microwaved “quesadilla” (really just a flour tortilla fold-over with grated cheddar cheese thrown in) eaten in 60 seconds. During the off-season, our backyard was the sandlot, with girls and boys from all over the neighborhood passionately playing their positions and breaking a window or two, just like it would have happened in the movies.
Good times. But I digress. Tonight, we’re watching Game 7 of the World Series, Astros vs. Dodgers. Go Astros!
Back to the treasures. Among all the game balls my son earned in his days as a player, we found other baseball mementos. Two “signed balls” from the Astros, those give-aways with the facsimile signatures stamped on them that you get for being one of the first 5,000 fans at an important game. They’re from the 1997 – 2005 period; the signatures include Larry Dierker (manager), Billy Wagner (pitcher), Matt Galante (coach), Craig Biggio (catcher, 2nd base and outfield) and Jeff Bagwell (1st base). Good times.
There was also a super-special memento from my Dad. He was a junior executive for Exxon in his early 30s, and snagged this commemorative bat back then. It was before the merger with Mobil changed the company name to ExxonMobil, and back in the days when the tiger was the mascot. I loved watching baseball with my Dad. And that carried forward to watching baseball with my son. Memories and mementos…
As I write, it’s the top of the 7th in the 7th game of the 2017 World Series matchup between the Astros and the Dodgers. Of course, I’m rooting for my hometown ‘Stros, but whatever happens, it has been a great ride. Baseball really is the national pastime.