Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sticky Buns

Sticky Buns

(part one of my journey to Florida journal)

We stepped out of my dad’s truck at a gigantic Flea Market about an hour north of Tallahassee. The tables of junk went on for almost a mile. It was bone chilling cold for March, barely fifty degrees. My mom and my sisters got out first, planting their clean shoes in the dusty red clay. They were digging around for their jackets when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my dad, who’s seventy two, get out of the truck, pull a loaded 38 caliber pistol from under his seat, and jam it into the side of his pants. He pulled his shirt neatly over the top of it, and as quickly as it appeared, it was gone.

“What’s that for?” I ask trying not to sound more alarmed than I was.

“Ya never know,” he said. “Ya just never know.”

On the way back, he and my mom took turns telling us about each person in the recent past had been murdered, beaten, robbed, killed in a car wreck, or had taken their own life in the Tallahassee area. And it was gruesome. At one point I glanced into the back seat at my sister, who just closed her eyes and shook her head.

I wanted a cup of coffee to warm myself up and get us away from the seemingly endless string of death stories, so I asked my dad to stop at the gas station near their house. I thought I’d just run in while he and his gun waited in the truck, but he insisted on coming with.

“There’s something I wanna show ya,” he said matter-of-factly. Looking to the back seat he said to my mom and sister, “Wait here. We’ll be right back,”

My dad taught me how to hunt when I was young. He even got me a 20 gauge shotgun for Christmas one year. It was propped up against the wall on Christmas morning, towering over my other toys sprawled out around the tree. As he trained me to shoot a lethal weapon, he was always adamant, almost maniacal about teaching me gun safety. Now, walking into a seedy little party store with him, a concealed weapon strapped to his blue jeans, I couldn’t help but wonder if he had lost his mind and was about to show me how to stage a good old fashioned hold-up.

I grabbed my coffee as quick as I could, but on the way to the counter he stopped me and pointed to the ceiling.


I looked up and saw a video camera staring straight at us.

“It’s a camera”, I said, trying to sound unimpressed.

“No, the three bullet holes in the ceiling around it. Someone robbed the place last week and tried to shoot the video camera out. Not a very good shot, huh?” I paid for my drink as fast as I could and made a beeline for the truck. My mom thought I should have a sticky bun to go with my coffee and offered to go back inside and get me one.

“NO! I’m fine.” I tried not to sound any more freaked out than I was.

“Well why don’t we go home and make cinnamon rolls? I haven’t made them in years and it’ll give us something to do this afternoon.”

I didn’t want her going back into that gas station, so I quickly agreed to her idea just to keep her in the truck. The more I thought about it though, the more I liked the suggestion. When I was a kid, my mother made the best cinnamon rolls on the planet. On weekends, she transformed the kitchen into a mini bakery and by noon on Saturday, the whole house would fill with the kind of sweet, doughy smell that stayed with me long after I grabbed one of those warm glazed rolls and ran out the back door with it stuck to the palm of my hand.

By the time we got back to their house, the weather had gotten worse, and since we were going to be cooped up in the house for the rest of the day, I actually got excited about doing some cooking with my mom, so I asked her to spend some time showing my sister and me how to make her family-favorite sweet treat. Come to find out, it wasn’t even her recipe. It was passed down to her from her mother, who inherited from her mother. Apparently my family has been making this recipe since at least the late 1800s.

No longer on a quest to distract my mom from my own firearm paranoia, I was feeling much more relaxed and ready to embark on a mission to learn, document, and make this recipe so I could help carry on the tradition. My family doesn’t generally share a lot of traditions, and ritual isn’t something we collectively engage in either, so finding out that food is one of those rare generational ties is a big deal for me. The task was made a little more challenging because the recipe has never been written down. Until now, of course, because I have a memory about as long as a hummingbird with A.D.D., and if I don’t write it down, the tradition could very well be lost.

The plan was simple. We would make a double batch. My mom would make the first batch to show us the “right” way to do it, as she says. Then I would make the second batch, while my sister documented the demonstration with the camera. My dad, nestled into his recliner, watched the whole thing with the antsy anticipation I remember experiencing when I was a kid. Only he was packin’.

My mom doesn’t use measuring cups or measuring spoons, so I’ll have to make a few batches to get the portions right, but the ingredients list is pretty simple: bread dough, butter (lots of it), cinnamon, sugar, raisins, and milk. She didn’t have the time to fuss with making bread dough from scratch, so she used her favorite substitute: pre-made bread dough that she buys from Walmart.

After letting it rise for a good while, she rolled it out into a big oval until it was pretty flat and pretty long. Then she softened a stick of butter and rubbed most of it onto the dough. I was a little shocked at how thick a layer of butter she used, but she insisted this was the key to making them moist and soft. From there, she just poured a bunch of cinnamon over the buttery dough, poured a generous amount of sugar over that, and finished it off by covering the whole thing in a layer of raisins and sprinkling a little milk over the whole pile.

The trick, she showed me, was rolling up the whole mass so you have at least three layers and then cutting it into chunks about an inch and a half to two inches long so they looked like pinwheels. In the final stage she turned each chunk on its side and laid it in a well buttered glass baking dish.

She let me do the second batch while she stood over my shoulder giving me directions on how to make them just right. My batch filled out the baking dish, which we put in the oven 325 degrees and baked until the rolls were golden brown.

It took about twenty-five to thirty minutes, but by the time they were done the whole house was filled with doughy, cinamony smells that made me forget all about guns and robberies and death and violence. I’m feeling a little scarred though, because I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to make my mom’s cinnamon rolls without thinking about my father’s silver sidearm. When I pass this family recipe on to my own child in ten or twenty years, though, this story will no doubt get passed along with it.