Image: Dan Page

Yeast and flour—the aroma was so unmistakable, it instantly transported me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. As a child, I had watched her make these cinnamon rolls on countless occasions. Now it was my turn, in my own kitchen. I stared at the smooth, elastic dough on the counter, beautifully risen, looking just as Grammy’s now-yellowed recipe card said it should.  

In the dozen years since she’d passed away, Esther Kleb’s cinnamon rolls—just like everything else Grammy ever made—had remained the stuff of legend in my family. Whenever we got together, it was never long before we found ourselves reminiscing about them. Reminiscing—but never eating. I’d been craving those sweet, fluffy, heavenly pastries for years. Finally, I would taste them again.

It seemed to me that all the hours I spent as a child in her kitchen gave me a leg up on the project. Furthermore, I had tools at my disposal that Grammy could only dream of. I had a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, she had a wooden spoon. And I had better ingredients, like that fancy butter I’d read about in Cook’s Illustrated (instead of margarine and, shudder, shortening), and wonderful Penzeys cinnamon.

By the time the rolls had made their way to my greased cookie sheet, my superior butter lightly coating the trays, I was convinced they would be amazing. All I had to do was let them rise a bit more, as instructed, and then pop them in the oven.

After 25 minutes, the cinnamon rolls emerged looking—well, not exactly like I expected. Instead of the light, fluffy pastries I remembered, they were rather dense. Okay, they were flattened, dark hockey pucks. Not that they were inedible, especially straight out of the oven, drizzled with buttery confectioner’s sugar icing. But my visions of pastry perfection were, to put it mildly, dashed. 

An uncomfortable admission: what my grandmother did every week with a wooden spoon and a mixing bowl in a few hours in between other chores had required for me an entire day, half a dozen bowls, countless utensils, and a $200 wooden spoon. 

The cinnamon roll debacle was the most, um, humbling moment I’ve had during my recent mini-quest to recreate the favorite foods of my youth, itself inspired by the rediscovery of my grandmother’s recipes. The dozens of 3x5 cards Grammy had written out over years and years had ended up at Aunt Sharon’s but were in pristine condition, as was the little red plastic box containing them, its untold secrets and mysteries still intact.  

Grammy was my father’s mother, and I spent many a summer afternoon with her and Grandpa when I was growing up. An only child, the eldest grandchild, and the only one who lived nearby, I thought of their Timbergrove bungalow as a second home. Whenever there, I always felt safe and warm, and usually spent most of my time in the kitchen, watching Grammy cook.

Born in 1910, my grandmother grew up in the Heights, one of four daughters her mother raised alone—her father died on Independence Day the year of her fourth birthday. During the Depression, she learned how to feed her family with the little they had. Those skills would serve her well throughout her lifetime. 

In 1937, she married my grandfather, who became an insurance salesman, and they had four children together, living in Tulsa for 15 years before moving back to Houston. In a way she was the original locavore, growing a constantly rotating array of vegetables in a 20-by-20-foot plot in the backyard, and harvesting pecans and figs from the trees next to it. She bought produce from the Airline farmers market behind Canino’s, canning, pickling, preserving, and freezing anything she could. 

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A woman of few words, she was in constant motion, communicating love for her family chiefly through food. As a kid, I loved sneaking into the garage and grabbing a frozen chocolate chip cookie from one of the jumbo coffee cans she kept inside two deep freezers. It was only later that I realized I hadn’t been so sly—she put the kind I liked in front, on a shelf within reach.

Back in the Timbergrove bungalow recently—Aunt Sharon now lives in the home that Grammy and Grandpa shared until they died in 2002, her going seven weeks to the day after he did—I thumbed through the recipe box, carefully separating out a handful I wanted to try. I came across a few surprises. For one thing, there were more recipes by friends and family members than by my grandmother. A few had even been clipped from the back of raisin boxes—horrors!—or magazines like Reader’s Digest.

Even more shocking: a recipe for something called Better Than Sex Cake, a horrific concoction authored by a Lake Charles woman that called for a box of yellow cake mix, a large tub of Cool Whip, a can of crushed pineapple, and a package of instant vanilla pudding. It was hard enough to accept that my saint of a grandmother had wanted to create something better than sex. Worse, she decided the best opportunity to make that happen was via a recipe that sounded like something Paula Deen whipped up for a Del Monte cookbook while tripping on acid. This was not the food I remembered from childhood. But that was a long time ago, and the foggy haze of history has a way of clouding one’s memory. 

While she may have been a child of the Depression, Grammy was also a housewife of the ’50s, the dawn of America’s love affair with processed foods. This was hard for some to accept, particularly my father, who tried and failed for years to solve the mystery of a heavenly breakfast from days gone by, his mother’s cheese scrambled eggs. One word: Velveeta. That delightful substance figured prominently and to similar effect in Good Casserole, another recipe in Grammy’s box, a delicious mix of ground beef, noodles, onions, canned corn, ketchup, and cheese. (Yes, I would make it again.)

A lot of the recipes are quick and easy like that, but not all. There’s the cinnamon rolls, for one thing, and then there’s the bread. “You can never knead bread dough too much,” reads a card titled My Own Baked Bread. “The more the better.” Every week, Grammy baked a half-dozen loaves of her own baked bread. A half-dozen. That was on top of tending a garden, shelling pecans, canning peaches, shopping for groceries, and making three meals every day for a family of six. How did she do it?

Another uncomfortable admission: in the kitchen, as elsewhere, all the modern conveniences, gadgets, and specialty stores in the world can’t make up for 60 years of experience and pure, unadulterated hard work. Another: I used to think that I would stop dreaming of her cooking if only I could find my grandmother’s recipes, but these days I dream about them even more than before. 

Not that all my work was for naught. Hardly. While going through the box, I came across something that stopped me. It was a card for lemon icebox pie, a dessert treat I knew all too well because I gave Grammy the recipe, the lone submission of a budding 10-year-old chef. I also recognized it because she had written the author’s name at the bottom, just as she did with all her recipes. “By My Little Jeff Balke,” it said. 

I’m not ashamed to admit it. I cried. 

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