Grandma Burton’s Rolls

“On major holidays when my mom’s family gets together, my grandmother makes the most delicious rolls. We call them Grandma Burton’s rolls, and, girl, when I go to Ohio those rolls are like gold.”

My informant lives in southern California, but her Grandmother Burton lives in a small town in rural Ohio. Her Grandmother has 15 biological children, one adopted child, and had many foster children throughout her life. When Grandma Burton began making the rolls it was out of necessity; she had many mouths to feed and buying ingredients was much cheaper than purchasing already made food. Eventually, her children grew older and as the rolls became a favorite food, Grandma Burton began saving them for special events.

My informant associates the rolls with large family reunions. She does not get to visit her Grandma Burton or her other relatives in Ohio very often, so whenever she does, she prizes the time she spends with her family. She describes her Grandmother as an exceptionally kind woman with a big heart, and when my informant bakes the rolls for her family in California, the rolls remind her of Grandma Burton’s goodness.

My informant learned how to bake the rolls when she ten years old. Her Grandmother was visiting in California, and my informant’s mother decided that they should both learn how to cook the rolls. My informant described the experience as “learning at the master’s feet.” Grandma Burton did not use exact measurements, and wanted to include my informant actively in the baking process. My informant was enthusiastic, but didn’t worry too much about learning the recipe.

A couple of years later, my informant went to visit her Grandmother in Ohio. While there, she asked her Grandmother again to teach her how to make the rolls. This time, my informant learnt with a bunch of her younger cousins. Her family was starting to worry about Grandma Burton’s impending death and since my informant did not want the tradition of the rolls to leave the family with her Grandmother she “meticulously watched” and took extensive notes as Grandma Burton made the rolls. Grandma Burton did not follow a recipe, though. My informant would get mildly frustrated, but also amused, when she would ask her Grandmother how much of an ingredient to use and Grandma Burton would respond, “However much you need!”

After returning to her home in California, my informant tried making the rolls on her own. She called her Grandmother many times during the process, since she felt her notes were inadequate and she was sure she would not be able to live up to Grandma Burton’s standards. Now, my informant makes the rolls for every special occasion, and she no longer relies on her notes. Many other family members now also know how to make the rolls, but my informant’s mother insists that my informant makes the roles when Grandma Burton cannot. According to my informant’s mother, my informant has “the right touch, [she] has Grandma Burton’s hands.” My informant’s uncle, who can also make the rolls, has “big, hard hands” and he always makes “big, hard rolls.”

My informant stated that the rolls are not just for the family; they are also for the larger community. Grandma Burton brought the community into her home. Her husband was a pastor at a church in Ohio, so she would invite members of the church community into her home, especially those who did not have somewhere to go during the holidays. She would serve the rolls to them, along with all of her children and the foster children who temporarily called her house home. My informant, on the other hand, has begun taking the rolls out to the community. Along with bringing the tradition from Ohio to California, my informant brought a piece of the tradition to her friends at the University of Southern California. Before returning to school after the winter vacation, my informant made two boxes of the rolls to share with her friends once the semester started.

My informant believes that her family continues the tradition of baking Grandma Burton’s Rolls partly because they are delicious, but also because they are a continuation of Grandma Burton’s legacy. I agree, since the sharing of the rolls reflects both the importance Grandma Burton apparently saw in family (she had fifteen children after all) and the kind heart my informant attributed to Grandma Burton and that is evidenced by her regularly inviting people, such as foster children and church members, into her home. Additionally, the baker’s personality and the rolls seem connected; the character of my informant’s and her uncle’s hands determines the quality of the rolls they make. My informant has taken the tradition of Grandma Burton’s rolls and made it her own tradition. I believe that by baking the rolls my informant is performing a piece of her family identity as well as her personal identity.