My family’s roll recipe gave me a new look at the tradition

By | November 21, 2023

My mother always said that she took two things with her from her marriage: me and a roll recipe. After she and my father divorced when I was a toddler, being on the same level as these buns—buttery, golden-brown horns of yeasty perfection—felt like a huge compliment let.

The recipe was passed down in handwritten notes to my father’s sisters and wives from I don’t know how far from rural Indiana to Dallas, where my parents settled. The notes were brought out every time something needed to be celebrated; They knew an event was special when the buns showed up, and likewise, their appearance had the power to make any occasion special.

Some of my earliest and fondest memories of this part of the family center on the rolls. I waited anxiously in the kitchen as my grandmother produced batch after batch, stealing some to eat on an oversized plush chair while I watched The price is correct.

As my relationship with my father deteriorated over time, these memories increasingly became a thing of the past and were not supplemented by newer ones. In my early teens, I eventually lost contact with anyone in that gene pool and went back to using my mother’s maiden name. Nevertheless, this bread roll recipe, the family tradition, remained.

These days they are the star of the Cadwalader Christmas brochure. But they faced stiff competition from my grandfather’s (my mother’s father’s) many dishes, including dressing and giblet gravy. His cuisine was legendary; Ask any of the Texas Shriners old-timers and they’ll have a story or two about Bill Cadwalader.

In the 1960s, he was the owner and short-order chef at Bill’s Snack Bar in downtown Dallas. According to family lore, he lent his chicken-fried steak recipe to the original owners of Black-eyed Pea, who later described it as their own family’s secret (the epilogue adds that they never would have made it right anyway). Stories about Grandpa were always a big deal, but no matter how far-fetched a story was, in most cases it was true.

He was the person I wanted to cook like (and still is), the male role model in my life and the reason I changed my name. His recipes could only be learned through an apprenticeship. The amounts of sage and thyme and the ratio of day-old white bread to cornbread in his dressing were determined by feel, not measure, but somehow were always just right.

By comparison, the roll recipe seemed staid, conveying information in cups and tablespoons and a criminally small amount of salt, ready to be passed from one housewife to the next. But no matter how wooden the steps were, the results were overwhelming. These old butterhorns overcame home field advantage and were what everyone looked forward to most on Thanksgiving.

You made me love bread. My weekly sourdough bakes—my milk breads, focaccias, challahs, baguettes, pizzas, and cookies—all stem from helping my mother make our annual Thanksgiving roll batch when I was five years old. Seven years later I took over the entire production myself.

In many ways, the rolls mimic my strained relationship with my father. When I was younger and we still had visitors every two weeks, it felt like my father’s mother’s recipe. My mother and I were guests, so we followed the recipe politely and reverently, as if we had borrowed something precious, ensuring that it would be in exactly the same condition upon its inevitable return.

As I grew older and these roles became the last remnants of some paternal bond, I felt more and more like an intruder with ill-gotten secrets that required a security clearance I no longer possessed. The feelings of rejection eventually resulted in outbursts after puberty. As the eldest grandchild, eldest son of the eldest son, I decided in my mid-twenties that this recipe was my birthright and I could do whatever I wanted with it. So I did it, unthinkable and blasphemous: I changed the recipe.

Looked at in the right light, I did what Grandpa would have done and didn’t allow ceremony to guide me and taste to guide me – but from another perspective, it was a micro-rebellion. Anyway, for me this was a Cadwalader recipe. And the results were, dare I say, better?

Losing family, preserving tradition and the enduring power of buttered rolls
The author’s daughters prepare the family roll recipe.Courtesy of Zac Cadwalader

It stayed that way for years – until I had children. Since my children were almost my age when I started helping my mother make the rolls, I was forced to rethink the recipe’s lineage. I was able to tell my children that the tradition began 35 years ago in my mother’s kitchen, shielding them from a more complicated truth. As convenient as it may be, this version would only serve to protect me, not them, and the story is as much theirs as it is mine.

In my anti-system youth, I thought traditions were a lie – a made-up story that was supposed to convey meaning. But that no longer seems to be the whole truth. Tradition, to quote an oft-misquoted Andy Warhol joke, is what you make of it. We are free to find our own meaning in what is passed down, and we owe this larger generational story no more than what we choose to give it.

I think traditions are really beautiful, especially the gnarly ones. The path can meander and become overgrown; the pace can slow down and speed up again; Traditions can invite others to join in. Riches come from adventure, not repetition.

This is evident in my replay of the roll recipe: a photocopy of Grandma’s words, with notes in my mother’s sweeping cursive, highlighted in red and appended in my own terrible penmanship, caked with smears and stains from my children. One day it will be theirs, they can do it with their children, at least I hope so. And they will have the whole story, some of which they are already starting to put together. For now, however, we have these roles. We will prepare and eat them together. A moment you could really build a tradition around.

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