Ed McClanahan: Grandma Jess’s Easy East Rolls

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My mother–Grandma Jess, my kids called her–died on August 29,1996. She was 88, happy and healthy, living independently among friends and family, still driving her own car, still enjoying a Bloody Mary every Saturday before lunch, when–while she was watching her beloved Democrats on TV one evening during the convention–she dropped off to sleep and never woke up. She was a beautiful, warm, vivacious woman, and we all miss her powerfully. But she left a splendid legacy of good will and good humor, generosity of spirit, all-encompassing affection…and the priceless recipe for her incomparable “east” rolls.

My mom, bless her heart, was given to creative pronunciation. After my folks sent me to Europe in 1953, she couldn’t get enough of my accounts of an Alpine fantasy she called “Switcherland.” Born Jessie Poage, she became a McClanahan twice over–long after my father’s death she married his brother, making her Jess McClanahan McClanahan– yet for more than sixty years she called herself “Jess McClanniehan.” She was an avid horsewoman, and for many years she kept a handsome Tennessee walking “harse” named Tonto. And, bearing the latter articulation in mind, you can readily imagine that what she did to the number that comes after thirty-nine was positively scandalous.

That brings us to her fabled east rolls, a primary ingredient of which is-you guessed it-yeast.

During most of my childhood and adolescence in Brooksville (the seat of government, commerce, and culture in all of Bracken County, as everybody knows), we lived two doors from the Methodist church and next door to the Methodist parsonage. The proximity required that, although my parents were not notably religious (nor irreligious, for that matter, despite my dad’s fondness for bourbon, tobacco, poker, and the ponies), we went to Sunday school and church every Sunday-religiously, as it were. Afterwards, to reward our piety, we treated ourselves to a sumptuous family Sunday dinner. I was an only child, so my immediate family was on the smallish side, but there were always enough aunts, uncles, grannies, and other company to guarantee a groaning board.

The standard entree of those Sunday dinners was a pot roast the size of the crankcase of a Massey-Ferguson tractor, ringed like Saturn by a garland of potatoes, carrots, brussels sprouts, and onions. There was also a “relish tray”-radishes, celery, raw carrots, green onions, olives, pickles, and similar low-priority comestibles; a couple of side- dishes, green beans, say, cooked to a fare-thee-well (Al Dente? Who the hell is Al Dente?); and a corn pudding so creamy and sweet it would break your heart, and a gravy boat brimful of l’essence d’un pot de boeuf (or, as I once heard a waitress in a Mississippi cafe call it, “aw juice”), and the vessel which, in point of fact, preceded the gravy boat in its stately voyage around the table, a breadbasket filled to the gunnels with those plump, toothsome, golden-brown dinner rolls, piping hot beneath a starched white linen napkin.

But before the breadbasket and the gravy boat could dock at my plate (block that metaphor!), I had one onerous duty to perform: The Blessing.

To my chagrin, my status as resident Cute Kid had automatically anointed me the designated grace-sayer; so back when I was five or six years old, several of my aunts had ganged up on me and made me memorize some perfunctory little rhyming pietism on the order of “Good bread, good meat!/Good God, let’s eat!” which I dutifully rattled off before every Sunday dinner. With the impending feast literally right under my nose, however, concentration was often hard to maintain, and I sometimes conferred my blessing so peremptorily that I forgot altogether what I was supposed to be saying: One Sunday, in place of my usual hi-speed incantation, I heard myself solemnly intoning the Lord’s Prayer, another time, the Pledge of Allegiance.

But the next thing I knew, all that would somehow be behind me, whereas before me was a dinner plate featuring pot roast with its supporting cast of vegetables, and there beside it would be that basket of rolls, all steamy and savory when you broke them open and exposed their soft, snow-white interior. And the gravy boat was a-comin’, its sails were in sight!

The rolls came in two styles; some opened into two sections, some into three. The two-section ones were best for cold roast beef sandwiches at Sunday evening supper-so I passed those over (and crossed my fingers that everyone else would do the same) in favor of the three-section variety, which provided more interior surfaces for soaking up the aw juice. For the same reason, they were also best for buttering, so when the basket came my way I always helped myself to three of them, two for gravy and the third for that even more exalted purpose. And when the butter had melted-and my mother wasn’t looking-I’d sprinkle sugar on the buttered sides, for a sort of preliminary mid-dinner dessert, to ready my palate for the pie or cake or custard or cobbler I knew would shortly be forthcoming.

My interest in the culinary arts has always pretty much been confined to the finished product (though I can whip up a pretty fair dry martini, when I have to), but the genesis of the yeast rolls caught my imagination like the Petty Girls in my dad’s monthly Esquire.

Sunday’s rolls began their brief but glorious lives on Saturday night, when my mom mixed up a batch of gray, flaccid, lumpy, singularly unpromising-looking glop in a big bowl, covered it with a damp dishtowel, and stashed it in the fridge, where it languished until after church the next morning by which time it had somehow ballooned to twice its original size, and become this smooth, pale orb that seemed almost to glow with its own inner light, like a little moon caught in a mixing bowl-or, come to think of it, like a Petty Girl.

But I digress.

My wife, Hilda (speaking of Pretty Girls), is the only cook I’ve ever known who belonged in the same kitchen with my mother. Hilda’s from Belgium, and-poor ignorant, benighted, unsophisticated European that she is-for the longest time she thought that “east rolls” came from the east, or were special Easter treats or something. Fortunately for the future of civilization, however, she inherited my mother’s recipe, and with it the mantle of reigning East Roll Queen of the Known World.

I’ve named them “Grandma Jess’s Easy East Rolls,” by the way, because when Hilda asked her how to make them, she declared, characteristically, “Oh honey, they’re just real easy!” Nonetheless, it took Hilda four tries to get them right. The lessons she learned from her first three attempts, Hilda says, are: 1) be sure you use cake yeast, not powdered; 2) be sure the yeast is fresh; and 3) be sure the oven is plenty hot (425º).

Well hey, enough idle chit-chat. Good God, let’s eat!

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