How Many Memories Are Baked in a Sweetroll?
I dig out the recipe and read the first line – “Scald the milk and let cool to room temp” – and I instantly feel a fluttery anxiety. Flashbacks.
“Hey Mom, my sweetrolls didn’t do that initial first bubbly rise thing.”
“Ahhh…you must have killed the yeast. Was your milk too hot?”
Gah!! I have that written three times on my recipe, but it still threatens to botch up the batch. That first rise is always a nailbiter.
Further down the page I chuckle a little as I recall the learning session when I sat at my kitchen island and watched Mom make her sweetrolls. I wrote down every move and technique no matter how minuscule lest I miss some piece of the magic. “I see you didn’t scrape the pan after you melted the butter, but you did after the eggs and vanilla.” “You don’t seem to fill your cups of flour to the top.” “You scraped the bits of dough up on that last knead, but not on the earlier ones.”
And to each of these observations, she’d just shrug. No reason. Not really sweetroll recipe secrets, but just how she did it. And possibly how her mom, Ada, and Aunt Emmy did it, and their mom before.
It’s how I do it. I’m not messing with history.
I’m kneading now having added more flour to that first successful rise. The rhythm and repetition opens my mind to more memories. The breakfast room in the Kaukauna house, early in the morning, the kids and I still in our pj’s, taking our turn at the table eating sweetrolls – roll in left hand, knife in right spreading each bite with a dab of butter. I’d never had homemade goodies like that – my mom wasn’t that kind of mom. She was a good mom, just different. So there was that old-fashioned aura from the era of yeast that consumed me. And if we weren’t visiting for awhile to get our sweetroll fix, she’d package them up and send them in the mail to us. What a sweet gift to receive!!
And now the aroma. They’re coming out of my oven and the house smells like the Perfection Bakery on Pearl Street at 5 a.m. and I remember the time she visited us right after Alex was born. She made sweetrolls and the apartment was enveloped with their warmth as they cooled on their upside down baking pans. That’s when she told me that I couldn’t eat any of them for a day or two or the freshly-baked yeast would bother newborn Alex’s tummy. You don’t forget something like that. Being told NOT to eat a fresh, warm sweetroll.
Mom no doubt made several hundred batches over, say, 65 years or so, and yet, it all slowly slipped away during her years with Alzheimer’s. When my son Calvin declared he wanted to learn, she was able to watch and engage while we measured and stirred, stepping in as lead instructor when it came time for rolling out and cutting. A few years later when the younger clan, Morgan and MacKenzie, wanted to be part of the sweetroll tradition, she would peek at us occasionally in the kitchen and then was brought into the middle of the action to sprinkle the cinnamon. It was heart-rending, but endearingly sweet and poignant to watch them giggle together and love on each other with this simplest of tasks, the girls welcoming Grandma where she was and cherishing this moment of sweetroll togetherness.
And then at some point soon after, she let go of sweetrolls entirely, moving into her new place of peace even further from her past and those structures and traditions that had defined her.
But we didn’t forget. We have pockets of memories tucked into a recipe, swirling amid dizzying whiffs, baked into those center gooey middle bites. Our flashbacks are all different yet with one similarity – each one is rarely just about the taste, but rather comes with a story. The sacred sweetroll routine of eating them Sunday mornings after church, sitting together on the picnic table in the bright yellow Fort Wayne kitchen. The time Snoopy the beagle ate a whole pan plus a stick of butter totally messing up the ‘one dab per bite’ technique. That one rare time when you were the last one to get to the breakfast room, everyone had had their fill and there was still half a pan left. And on and on. You start talking about sweetrolls and this Sauer clan can go on for hours with stories that all flow into one cinnamon-twist of truth – Grandma/Mom didn’t just ‘bake sweetrolls’. She poured herself into them, deliberately, knowingly serving us, expressing her love for us, receiving our love and appreciation in return with each moan of contentment, each delightful anecdote.
She is gone from our physical midst now, but we are still mixing and kneading, baking and eating because her sweetrolls carry her presence. They’re one powerful thread of connection to her love and to each other. They are her family. No matter which one of us makes them moving forward, sweetrolls equal Grandma Cuckoo.