This is the first post in a series: January Dreaming. Click here for the rest of the series.
My late Mom always hated January. For many reasons.
The emotional let-down after the excitement of the holidays.
The dreary, gray, chilly days.
The lack of a real identity for this also-ran of months. Nothing big happens. All the other months get the glory.
Mom was a warm weather person, and grumped her way through all her Januaries. I think she kind of enjoyed putting down her least favorite month, and she had a real patter going about it “too cold, too damp, too boring, no spice to it!”. She spent her January days dreaming of warmer good times and letting everyone know about it. I miss that, and her.
That’s Mom above at the beach where I grew up, in Gilchrist, Texas along the Gulf of Mexico. The floppy hat illustrates her personality so well – she definitely marched to her own drummer. So in Mom’s honor, I’m going to do some January Dreaming posts about warmer days. First up will be scenes from a Paris taxi ride in July (my next post – stay tuned).
Update: the January Dreaming series ended when January passed its chilly baton to February, but you can dream of good times in warmer months at any time by clicking here.
It Started with Mom’s Food Crush on Paul Prudhomme and Her Collection of His Cookbooks
My Mom, an excellent cook, had a food crush on Paul Prudhomme. She bought every cookbook he published until her death in 2000, and those books were well-used. Marked-up, dog-eared and stained, they are family treasures.
As my first culinary teacher and mentor, Mom made sure I also got a copy of every one of the cookbooks, too, so I could share in the Chef Paul magic. I was a very young adult when Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchenwas published in 1984, and I’m sure that his recipes influenced my tastes and later, my recipes.
When she died, I inherited Mom’s Chef Paul cookbooks (and lots of others). I instantly started using her books instead of mine, because there’s a lot of love and family history encrusted in those pages. Along with the cutting boards my Dad made, these cookbooks are at the top of my Prized Possessions list. My own dog-eared copies of Chef Paul’s complete works are packed up and waiting for my son (known as the Musical Millennial in these pages) to have his own home and kitchen (after college and grad school).
Mom and Dad Fell in Love with K-Paul’s Restaurant
Even with Mom’s food crush on Chef Paul, it took a while for my parents to get to K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, the restaurant in New Orleans that he ran with his wife, Kay. Together, their names are the origin of the restaurant name “K-Paul’s”. Finally there on a culinary road trip in the late 80s, Mom and Dad absolutely loved their dining experience at K-Paul’s and raved about it from that day forward. (It was one of their first big empty-nester trips, and I’ve never really forgiven them for not taking me along.)
Mom was ill for the last few years of her life and definitely too sick to cook, but she was a devotee of all of Chef Paul’s cooking shows on PBS in the late 90s. It was fun to visit her and watch his shows, commenting on his recipes, reminiscing about the dishes we’d made from the cookbooks, just being foodie nerds together.
Well, I never made it to K-Paul’s with Mom and Dad, and Chef Paul died in 2015.
K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen is Alive and Well
K-Paul’s is still in daily operation in the French Quarter, and you can still find tried and true Louisiana Kitchen dishes there. The Grill-Meister and I took a tenth anniversary trip to NOLA this summer, and finally visited this family legend restaurant. More than 30 years after Mom and Dad’s discovery trip, it was everything they said it was, updated for this century. And yet, still a little homey, which is the promise of the sign, the original from the late 70s (as far as I can tell from online research).
Let me tell you about it.
The bread basket sported jalapeño rolls and two different little muffins, one of which, the carrot-pecan (and molasses, I suspect), had the Grill-Meister enthralled.
We shared Fried Green Tomatoes and Shrimp, and it was heavenly. Just the right amount of crisp batter on the tomato slices, with shrimp in a piquant brown sauce sandwiched between them.
Oh, the main courses! We ate, and we ate, and we still couldn’t finish them. I had the pan-fried fish and shrimp with jambalaya and the Grill-Meister had the blackened drum. Both came with gloriously sautéed vegetables and the drum was accompanied by a very creamy, very large dollop of garlic mashed potatoes.
Our waiter was magnificent: well-versed in the intricacies of the menu and daily specials, funny, solicitous and there when we needed him – but without hovering. Exactly the qualities we hope for in a waitperson.
We made friends with interesting folks at other tables.
The ambiance at K-Paul’s is casual and fun, with recipes on the walls.
It’s a well-oiled machine – we enjoyed watching the food come out and get served within moments.
Some folks say that K-Paul’s is a tourist destination, and they’re right. That’s just fine. It’s worth the trip. It was for Mom and Dad back in the 80s, and for the Grill-Meister and me last June.
And as for those heirloom cookbooks, they’re still in use here at Glover Gardens. We make Chef Paul’s blackened fish about once a month – check it out here.
Gumbo Recipe (and Stories) Coming Soon
I’m in a Paul Prudhomme mood because I’m making gumbo tonight, and he was one of my gumbo mentors. I’ll publish my version soon, hopefully in time for Thanksgiving and those turkey leftovers. Turkey makes marvelous gumbo.
For reasons you’ll soon understand, I’m a little afraid of roosters. But I met this nice one a few weeks ago and he wasn’t mean. I wrote a haiku for him: Rooster Ballet Haiku.
That experience reminded me of The Story of Chicken, and I promised to share it with you soon. Now is the time.
It’s a Shared Memory
Shared memories make family stories the best. Usually starting with “Remember that time…” and requiring all who were involved to chime in to get the facts straight, family-memory stories gain a patina with age and become the stuff of legend.
Such is The Story of Chicken.
But alas, I am the only remaining member of our nuclear family of four and I realize now how much a family story relies on all of the voices. I will do my best to honor Chicken, and face correction from Mom, Dad and Steve when I cross over to the other side. Or perhaps they will speak through me as I channel them now. Let’s get started.
Grab a Coffee
Oh, and by the way, grab a coffee or a cold drink and be prepared to “sit a spell,” as my paternal grandmother Mema would say. The Story of Chicken is not short.
We Lived at the Beach
My childhood home of memory is the beach house on stilts we moved to when I was nine and my brother Steve was six.
The Canal City subdivision in Gilchrist, Texas is a tiny community perched on the Gulf Coast on the Bolivar Peninsula and a perfect place to grow up; I’ve shared with you before here on the pages of Glover Gardens that Steve and I were always planning to write a memoir called Surviving the Perfect Childhood. The Story of Chicken would have been a chapter.
Grandma Brought Us Her Unwanted Hatchlings
My maternal grandmother, Ruth, was a biology teacher at Yates High School in Houston, two hours north of us, and had run a class project to hatch chickens and ducks. The project was successful and produced adorable fuzzy little creatures – but none of her students in that very urban area of town wanted to take them home to raise. Neither did my grandmother (or rather, my grandfather).
A beach house with a canal behind it – our home was the perfect answer to Grandma’s dilemma. A Saturday visit from Grandma and Grandpa brought a couple of shoeboxes full of fowls, and we were enchanted. We named the ducks Wynken, Blynken and Nod (after the song and poem; here’s a link to Carly Simon and her sister singing it back in the day). Sadly, I don’t remember if the chickens had names. This is where another family member would have chimed in!
A Storm Took ‘Em All, Save One
There was a week or two of fun with fowl as we watched the ducks swim in the canal behind our house and the chickens run around pecking the ground and chasing each other. And then came a storm. It was either a very bad thunderstorm or a very mild tropical storm that swept over us from the Gulf, and when we emerged the next morning after hunkering down inside all night, all of our fowl were missing from their nests in the garage except one little white chicken.
Always very tenderhearted, Steve was only 7 at the time and was very upset about the loss of our little flock. He became very protective of the remaining chick, naming him Chicken and treating him like a lap dog.
Chicken Grows Up to Be a Big, Big Boy
Spoiled by Steve and fed table scraps, Chicken grew to be a mighty rooster. Huge, mostly white with ugly black mottling and a scary-looking red comb, he was formidable and aggressive, strutting around the yard proudly, chasing away possums and armadillo and scaring our cats into hiding.
We had the front house along the beach highway and beach-going strangers pulled over several times during Chicken’s time with us to ask what we were feeding him! Did I say he was big? It doesn’t sound believable now, but I swear he was 3 feet tall. Sadly, there are no surviving pictures of Chicken. But maybe he was a Brahma; they get really big. I read that they were re-introduced in the 70s and it would have been just like my grandmother to get a rare breed for her students to hatch.
Chicken Loved Only Steve
While carrying Chicken around and cradling him like a huge football, I distinctly remember Steve saying many times in a singsong voice, “Pet him, Mama; isn’t he soft?” Steve really lovedChicken, and Chicken loved Steve right back. They went together like peanut butter and grape jelly, or “PB&GJ” as my Mom would have said.
But there was a problem: Chicken was a one-person rooster. He tolerated Mom, most likely because of those facilitated petting sessions, but he absolutely loathed Dad and me. With a passion. And folks, you don’t know what passionate loathing looks like in a rooster until you’ve had a giant, angry one chase you.
Running the Clothesline Gauntlet
Our dryer was often broken and we had a clothesline downstairs strung between the pilings holding up the beach house. (I think we might have been poor during that period, but Steve and I didn’t know it.)
To retrieve my clothes from the clothesline, I had to take a broom with me to fight off Chicken, and Dad often used the pitchfork for the same purpose. Dad also used his briefcase like a shield when he got home from work to make the trek from the car to the stairs. Why was this necessary? Because when he saw Dad or me, Chicken would square off, put his head down, and come running at us to peck at our legs. Hard. I still remember the frightening sound his heavy, red rooster feet made as he thundered across the grass: thoomp, thoomp, thoomp, thoomp. I had to practice positive self-talk to get ready to go out and face Chicken: “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.”
Once I only had the pair of socks I was fetching from the clothesline to fend off Chicken, and he drew blood on my legs. That was the beginning of the end of his days with the Harvell Family of Canal City in Gilchrist, Texas.
The Chicken Round-Up
Dad put the word out about a giant, available and (probably) virile rooster at The Corner, the local café where all the retired men met for coffee each day. He soon got the word that Houston, the telephone man (yes, his name really was Houston) was in the market for a rooster. Score! My clothesline experience was about to improve!
Houston met Dad at our house one afternoon to collect Chicken. I was home when this happened but Steve was not…probably by design. Dear Readers, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen two grown men, one of them in a business suit, chase an irate rooster with a fish net. Chicken gave them a workout! I think they might have had to use the cast net as a last resort. Of course I was rooting for Dad and Houston, but I did enjoy the spectacle. So did Mom, although it was several years before she’d admit it.
Chicken Rules the Roost
What happened next was always best told by Dad. Because Steve was really worried about Chicken settling in to his new life, Dad checked in with Houston a few days after the big intervention and resettling. Houston said,
Well, Frank, I thought I was going to have to get rid of him before my black lab killed him. The first day Chicken was here, that dog chased him all over the yard and wouldn’t leave him alone. But from the second day forward, Chicken got the upper hand, and if you drive by you might see him chasing the dog. I thought that dog had a little more fight to him, but I guess he’s no match for Chicken.”
A Happy Ending, and Some Input from My Sister-in-Love
Apparently Chicken was happy with his hen party, and Mom and Dad told Steve he left to start a family. Steve isn’t here to tell his side, but my “sister-in-love”, the marvelous woman he was married to for many years, tells me that Steve loved telling The Story of Chicken.
Steve talked about that damn chicken all the time. He said he’d love on it and call it a pretty Chicken. He also said you and Frank had to give yourselves a pep talk before you went outside knowing that chicken was waiting to ambush you and attack. Made me laugh every time.”
She went on:
I have a mental picture of Frank in a suit taking a last sip of coffee and a couple of deep breaths as he peeks out the window and then rushes out the door and down the stairs fighting off the chicken, using his briefcase as a shield.”
I love that my sister-in-love remembers this story from my brother’s retellings, and I think that The Story of Chicken will live on. Don’t you?
More about my brother and me, our shared perfect childhood and the complicated world we landed in later can be found at:
My dad was born 80 years ago today in West Texas as the Great Depression was coming to an end in the shadow of another Great War in Europe, a time before regular Americans realized we’d be involved in that war.
With that backdrop and two incredible and resourceful parents, Dad was raised to be frugal, honest, fair and humble. To use his wits, respect people, and figure out a Plan B for everything. To find the humor and bright side in everything, even if you had no money and had to wash your clothes in the sink. The second of four kids, Dad worshipped his older brother and protected and respected his younger sisters.
Graduating high school in 1957, Dad attended the University of North Texas for a semester or two before realizing that he’d need help financing that dream of a college education and enlisted in the Army. He was innocent, idealistic and somehow, cool. Check him out with his trumpet in 1958; he called this picture Frank Cool.
Dad met my mom on a blind “coke date” and they married soon after, even though they said later that they initially didn’t like each other!
I joined Mom and Dad just a year later as he was finishing his service in the army. And then my brother Steve came along.
We were a close family. Steve and I were always going to write a book called Surviving a Happy Childhood. Maybe I still will. Dad was my role model, rock and mentor. Lots and lots of years, happy times and memories later, after Mom and my Steve each took their last bows, Dad and I grew even closer. He was immeasurably important to me.
Then Dad went over the rainbow in June of 2017. The grief was breath-taking, harsh and immediate, and yet…there aren’t words to express my gratitude that he was born into this world on October 16, 1938, and that I was born to him and my mom. My life has been incredibly blessed, parent-wise.
So sadness and grief take a distant second place today as I celebrate Dad’s second birthday in heaven. Happy memories take center stage, and this haiku and photo from last year’s Dad’s-Birthday-Post still seem just right.
Haiku for Dad
you nudged me into everything I’ve ever done you believed in me
Happy birthday, Dad, and I’ll see you on the other side.
bright lights pop and fly sparkly designs light the sky memories float by
In Edinburgh for business this week, my colleagues and I were delighted to learn that fireworks were on the Monday night menu for the closing ceremony of the Edinburgh International Festival. This month-long celebration has been a thing since 1948.
After dinner in a traditional Scottish restaurant, we stood in the street and watched the fireworks, awestruck. For me, many memories floated by as I stood transfixed. Memories of fireworks and family in times past:
A cousin’s birthday party on the beach, when July 4th parent-sponsored fireworks started a brush fire, and all the able-bodied men in a 20-mile radius showed up, the eager, macho and beer-fueled volunteer fire departments of three tiny unincorporated towns. It was all rather exciting to us kids, and anticlimactic for the adults. It was blamed on a teenaged girl who pointed a bottle rocket the wrong way, but I had my doubts even then. Girls usually weren’t allowed anywhere near the bottle rockets…I’m just sayin’.
About 25 years later, another July 4th, this time with my 8 year-old son, just the two of us in our pajamas in the car, having decided at the last minute to catch the city’s show. We parked on the side of the road and watched from the car windows, singing The Rainbow Connection (from the Muppet Movie), changing to words to include family members and pets. Good times.
New Year’s Eve of 2014, in Breckenridge, Colorado, in a brutally cold -19F / -28C. There was a parade of skiers with red torches on their poles down the mountain in the early evening, and then fireworks later. Yes, I said -19 degrees – you can see it there on the car thermometer! It was bitter-bitter-bitterly cold, but also breathtaking and spectacular. And memorable.
Back to the present, last night in Edinburgh. The fireworks were launched just behind Edinburgh Castle, on the far side from our hotel. Here’s the view of the castle from the hotel, in the daylight.
When we thought the fireworks were over, we said our good nights and retired to our rooms, but lo and behold, the booms and sparkles started up again. I was lucky to catch the rest of it from my window.
Business trip serendipity. Memories. Good times. Edinburgh rocks.
Your book, Kitchen Confidential, made me laugh out loud. Its relentless and brutal honesty also gave me complete certainty that I made the right choice by not going into the business of food and letting cooking for others remain a beloved hobby.
Your curiosity and wanderlust were inspiring. The world is a big, wonderful and fabulously interesting place, and your intense hunger for knowledge and new experiences tantalized and nourished me, along with so many others.
The headlong-headstrong way you embraced – and even exalted – peasant and street food helped me to embrace and exalt some of the more humble food in my own family’s background.
I didn’t know you, Anthony Bourdain.
But I’ve struggled with your death.
I’ve been silent for a few days trying to process it.
My brother made the same choice you did, Anthony. He took his own life.
I’ve been silent – and not-silent – for almost five years trying to process it.
There’s an army of people out there just like me who are struggling with your death from a duality of emotions.
There’s the sense of loss from the abrupt ending of your huge contribution to the canons of travel, food and cultural understanding, and a reluctant but absolutely unavoidable comparison to our own unwelcome experiences with the savage, raw, rollercoaster aftermath of suicide.
We mourn you with already-broken hearts, Anthony. There’s a seat at the table that shouldn’t be empty yet.
We cringe and weep for your loved ones, who will struggle for years to understand.
We wish it was different. We know it will never be the same.
I didn’t know you, Anthony Bourdain.
I wish I had.
You made a difference to me. To many.
Today I join the chorus of voices, each mourning your death and celebrating your life in their own way.
Your egalitarian outlook, voracious appetite and adventurous spirit made the world’s menu so much bigger for so many.
Thank you for that, Anthony. I hope you’ve found peace. I hope my brother has found peace. I pray that your family and loved ones will someday find peace and acceptance.
It takes a long, long time.
And for anyone else out there who has read this far and struggles with depression and hopelessness like Anthony, my brother, and so many others, below is a repeat of a ragged little poem I wrote, a plea for you to reach out. The original post is here: My Brother’s Suicide: Out of the Darkness and Into the Light.
A Suicide Prevention Poem: Out of the Darkness and Into the Light
It seems like yesterday that I was creating this post, Happy New Year!and looking ahead to 2017, and now here we are again, at the brink of yet another new year. I look forward to sharing and connecting with you all in 2018 via the Glover Gardens blog, and looking back at what you liked here in 2017 is giving me some ideas for the days ahead.
I was so grateful that I wrote this one about my childhood while Dad was still with us, and he commented on it: my days by the water.
Haiku for My Dad was a Father’s Day tribute to him just three days before he died. What a gift we had, Dad and me; when my husband took the early morning phone call that Dad had died and conveyed it to me, my response was: “I’m ok, we had no unfinished business.” I didn’t remember saying that until he reminded me later, but it is so true, and I am so incredibly blessed by the honesty and mutual regard of our relationship. And its awesome that you read my raw writings that tried to express this incredible blessing, and found some value in it.
Hurricane Harvey Captivated You
The #2 and #4 posts in 2017 were about Hurricane Harvey: Houston is Paralyzed by Flooding and How You Can Help Texas Right Now. You were interested in what was going on down here in the wetlands. And you didn’t just read the posts, you went to sites where you could help – there were 62 click-throughs on links I shared for donating to help Texas recover from Harvey, from the food bank to animal shelters to the Red Cross and the fund created by Houston Texas JJ Watts. Thank you; we are grateful for your empathy and support. Harvey was horrific for Houston.
You Shared My Travel and Restaurant Experiences
Two of the posts in the top five in 2017 were essentially restaurant reviews, a retelling of amazing meals that I had while traveling.
I Like Taking Requests – and You Like Reading the Results
One of my readers asked how to make an antipasto platter, so I answered with a post about it and included a long reminiscence about my Mom’s approach to antipasto. I loved getting the request, and you liked the post enough to make it the 12th most viewed in Glover Gardens in 2017: Antipasto Advice from Mom and Great Tastes from the Texas Coast.
A New Name
As I hit the 2-year anniversary of the Glover Gardens Cookbook blog earlier this year, I realized that I was talking about much more than just recipes, my original intent. I asked your opinion about the name of the blog in What’s In a Name? Seeking Your Input. You gave me great feedback, and one of the suggestions was simply to call it Glover Gardens. A couple of months ago, I made this change with no fanfare, and changed the tag line to reflect the multifaceted nature of the topics.
What’s Next? Authenticity, Curiosity, Empathy
I don’t make specific New Year’s resolutions these days because I don’t really believe in them, but I do want to move in these directions in my life in general, hopefully reflected in the blog:
to be courageous and speak more with my own authentic voice, as I did with the poem about my brother’s suicide.
to be more in-the-moment-mindful and curious about the world – and to share what I learn.
to listen more and practice “cognitive empathy”; to truly understand others and learn from their truths.
You Matter to Me
I have learned a great deal in 2017 through my interactions in this blog, spanning a huge spectrum. You validated my beliefs and ideas and added context and color to them. You challenged me and provided a different lens for viewing life and love of all kinds. You gave me interesting perspectives on photography, travel, spices, recipes, mindfulness and your own challenges. I am inspired by you!
The Collective Muse
Although I started the blog to capture my recipes for our sons and their (eventual) families, I actually thought my muse for this blog was my Dad. Then he died. He died. He died. He died. I probably haven’t accepted that – he died.
I wrote about Dad being my muse and losing him: Mourning the Loss of My Father and Muse. Especially during his last year when he had a mysterious illness, I wrote most of my posts hoping to inspire Dad and ignite him.
Reality: Dad died. I have to have a different muse. What a hard truth to absorb.
I kept on writing.
Maybe I’m my own muse? Maybe the muse is this vast expanse of strangers who read, and “like” and comment?
I wrote about joy. I wrote about frustration. I wrote about travel, the world and food. I created haiku for silly things, and profound happenings. I shared recipes.
I kept on writing. You listened.
A marvelous thing happened. One of my nieces said, “I read every one of your posts, and if I’m with my friends, I read them out loud.” She mentioned a specific post about her Dad (my brother) and referenced a phrase or two from it. Oh. My. Gosh. She’s a living, breathing muse. She is part of me, and someone I can write these memories for. So are my other family members.
And, in addition, so many of you reached out. You said that you had lost a loved one and felt something similar, or you liked a silly haiku I wrote, or a recipe looked delicious, or a family memory stirred an emotion. You shared an approach for editing a photo, or using a special spice in a recipe, or a trick you use to stay sane in a crazy world. You empathized with me. You cared.
I kept on writing. You let me know you were reading, and you became my muse / the source of my inspiration. My family, my friends, my special set of strangers – you are my muse and inspiration. Thank you. Here’s to a great 2018!
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.
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.