Tradition On A Roll

Tradition On A Roll

The Hackney Family
Christmas 2016
Past, present and future roll makers

How something starts with a simple potato and ends up a hot, golden-brown, buttery pillow of perfection has been a secret for many generations. In our Hackney family, if you mix potatoes, lard, yeast, flour and butter; add elbow grease, have the patience for the dough to rise twice, then you'll either have a mushy mess of carbs or my grandmother's potato rolls. A bona fide taste of heaven, the rolls are best right out of the oven. Snitch one, butter thickly, gobble up. Usually eaten in one bite. Maybe two. Never three, even for those with the most gracious manners.

Certainly family holidays at my grandmother's house were memorable and there had to be fun times with cousins, handsome holiday decorations and a splendid dining table except I can't remember any of those things with any clarity. But the rolls baking - that is forever etched in my mind. Her house, filled with a wonderful aroma - almost a bready perfume - drawing me in. And standing in the kitchen, Hunt, as we called her, fussing over those rolls, waiting for one pan to finish rising while her old timey-stove timer was buzzing meaning another pan was ready. Nearby were the carved turkey and country ham perfectly arranged on silver trays. The stuffing and the sweet potatoes were ready as well, but most of her attention was spent on the rolls - the star of the meal - and she treated them accordingly.

The next generation of roll making was taken over by my mother, who didn’t enjoy cooking – she didn’t really like any of the domestic arts – but she could make a damn-delicious potato roll. Always the rebel, she switched up the old family recipe with boxed potato flakes because she loved a shortcut as much as she hated cooking. Still, the same hot, steaming, pillow-tops of feather-lightness emerged from her rarely used ovens. Friends waited patiently for her holiday gift - a last minute, Christmas Eve delivery of rolls - but the best pan of rolls was always reserved for her family.

Family traditions start somewhere, and this one started with my great-grandmother, Bessie Acra Hackney. My father remembered her serving holiday meals to her family of forty-five - 8 children and their spouses and 29 grandchildren - and her potato rolls were always on the menu. He recalled how she bought flour and lard in bulk and kept the costly ingredients under lock and key. Although only 4'11" tall, Bessie was large in personality and determination, and the keys to that pantry were tied onto her apron so no one could plunder her supplies. No one was brave enough to even ask but my grandmother, Hunt, did request her mother-in-law's famous potato roll recipe and Bessie was happy to accomodate. The rest is family history, made (and eaten) one roll at a time.

If I attempt to start a batch of rolls, my wife stops me. It's one culinary skill she has that her chef-husband doesn't have and she likes it that way. As I watch her, I better understand the trouble these rolls are to make: boiling and mashing the potatoes, carefully measuring hot potato water to melt the Crisco, adding the flour (only White Lilly will do) along with the other ingredients, and then endlessly kneading.

Then there's the art of gently touching the dough to insure it "feels right" - not too sticky, not too dry - but just so. Waiting for it to rise, turning up the furnace temperature if needed, and after it's risen, punching it down, rolling it out to a quarter-inch thickness and cutting the smooth dough into perfect rounds. Then, dipping each round into melted butter and folding in half into a semi-circular shape my grandmother called "a pocketbook" - but to my eyes, more closely resembling a clam shell. Next, the freshly cut and buttered rolls lined up in pans like obedient soldiers. And then more waiting - pans of rolls scattered around the kitchen on any flat surface - for the second rise. The laborious process ends with cooking them and watching the rolls turn into the familiar golden-brown hue. That is, unless you forget about the real grand finale - snitch, butter, gobble.

Yes, they're a lot trouble to make, but Susan's rolls are just as delicious as my grandmother's and maybe more so now that I truly understand the difficult process. She doesn't use Mother's potato flake shortcut, instead preferring to use potatoes, just as Bessie decreed in her original recipe. The youngest roll maker in our family is our 6 year-old granddaughter, Page, who loves to help make rolls and with any luck, will carry this family tradition forward.

From way back when I was a child watching Hunt fuss over these rolls (and eating more than my fair share at holiday meals), to today, when Susan spends her scarce free time making them, these rolls are made with a lot of love - a hackneyed expression for sure, but it's true. And at this very moment our house is perfumed with the aroma of rolls baking - just like my grandmother's house from all those years ago. Susan just pulled a pan of those diet-busting sirens out of the oven. Delicious lust. Golden-brown and feather-light. Magical. Heavenly.

What is it about these rolls that makes them so special? Difficulty in preparation? A family tradition that connects one generation to the next? The most delicious roll you'll ever taste? Yes to all of these questions but maybe it's something indefinable by words. Most family traditions are a sacred way to pass practices and beliefs from one generation to the next - and perhaps that's true for Bessie's potato rolls - although my hunch is they're simply meant to be eaten and enjoyed.

This post is dedicated to Martha Walston who for 59 years has been a mentor, my sometimes parental unit when my parents couldn't be but mostly my friend who has worried I hadn't written any stories about the Hackney side of my family. My grandmother's rolls seemed a great way to start. Susan made a large pan of rolls for Martha, who is an incredibly healthy 94, and she will serve them at the large family dinner at her house Christmas eve.


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