The family recipe is not to be taken lightly. Receiving highly coveted instructions for Mama’s famous meatballs, from Mama herself, is a rite of passage. These recipes are written on index cards in old-fashioned, beautiful script, and after years of use the cards are stained with drips of butter and chocolate streaks, the paper browning with age.
This is not one of those recipes.
My family’s dinner rolls are so significant to my childhood holiday meals that I will always associate them with the smell of fresh pine needles and spiced eggnog. But I have never seen the recipe — and I don’t think I ever will.
My maternal grandmother, Barbara Story, whom we called Nana, and her sister, Sylvia, were the cooks in the family. Raised in an era when no good cooks took recipe shortcuts, these women made everything from scratch. They used real butter, beat their batters by hand, and took pride in their homemade craft. It never occurred to them to make a cake from a box, or purchase pre-made cookie dough (I shudder to think what they would say about today’s supermarket aisles with everything you can imagine in packaged mixes). These ladies made a good team, my grandmother, the natural cook, and Sylvia, the baker. They were always polite but they were also each other’s biggest competitors. Each kept a watchful eye over her shoulder in this never-ending contest to outperform her sister.
My grandmother showcased her talent at parties. Turkey with a crackling skin brushed with honey and adorned with rosemary and parsley she had picked earlier outside her Seattle home, steamed asparagus dusted with Parmesan and shaved almonds, and garden zucchini quiche, rich with ricotta, were a few of her triumphs. A staple at every meal were her dinner rolls. They were flaky, airy, and elegant, not like dense baking powder biscuits. Spectacularly puffy, they stood regal with their golden crowns. These pillows of buttermilk could hold their own in any Southern kitchen. As first and only granddaughter, I received a special roll before dinner. Awaiting my prize, I waited anxiously at the counter.
Everyone made a huge fuss over Nana’s rolls. We ate them plain, or smothered with marmalade, or dunked in gravy, or broken into pieces and used to swirl the last juices on the plates. They were so well received that friends began asking my grandmother to bring the rolls to parties. She was happy to. But she was never willing to share the recipe. Her friends nodded with understanding. Every woman has a recipe she keeps to herself.
The most intrigue came from Sylvia, who after years of providing cardamom apple pies, pistachio cannoli, and all other desserts, had been entrusted as the family baker. How could her sister outdo her in the simplicity of a dinner roll?
My grandmother was firm. She declined to release her instructions or technique. Sylvia was outraged; the two had never refused to exchange recipes. Sylvia offered to trade the secrets of her most coveted desserts, but was politely denied. In her determination, Sylvia helped herself to the recipe box, and peered in the kitchen trash looking for clues. She turned up early for dinner in hopes of catching my grandmother mid-preparation, but arrived only in time to see the rolls warming in the oven. Everyone passed the bread basket around the table and their compliments followed. My gracious but secretive grandmother smiled.
Sylvia became furious. Only after digging through the backyard trash can did she find her answer. Buried deep beneath heaps of discards lay several red and white cardboard boxes from Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The secret recipe my grandmother held so dear was actually the Colonel’s buttermilk biscuits.
Elated in her discovery, Sylvia exposed my grandmother. After countless holidays of passing them off as her own, my grandmother admitted that her famous dinner rolls were, in fact, not homemade, but purchased from the fast food chain. Sylvia reclaimed her baker’s title, and although the scam was revealed, I know my grandmother, rather than suffer humiliation, took pride in the many years of her successful sting.
Nana and Sylvia are both gone now, but likely continuing their sisterly competition.
I have no dog-eared recipe card for the best part of the holiday meal, but whenever I get a hankering for my grandmother’s special rolls, I just head to the closest KFC.Leigh Shaplen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.