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Old Traditions, New Traditions & the Potato Rolls That Stuck Through it All

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Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Maybe it’s because I have a food-loving family and each year our table is filled with carefully homemade delectables. There’s usually more than one turkey, a bowl of incredibly sweet corn that my mom froze in the summer specifically for the occasion, stuffing made with perfectly crusty whole grain bread…the list goes on.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

But really, as with many families, I think it has to do more with the people, and our traditions. At some other holidays, my large family gathers in clusters and smaller groups, but at Thanksgiving we all sit around one big table (or rather, a pretty big table with a few card tables shoved at either end and covered strategically with a tablecloth).

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Photo by Erin McDowell

We’re not slaves to tradition; each year brings a few new dishes. One year, two of my brothers brought competing green bean dishes. I always contribute one new pie, often to unabashedly honest (and mixed) reviews.

The predictably unpredictable Kansas weather throws us annual curveballs. Sometimes, we play bocce or cornhole in the yard while the turkey roasts. Other years, we huddle in the living room, drinking wine and playing bluegrass standards as the “family band.”

Photo by Erin McDowell

We do, however, have some traditions that don’t waiver. Two days before the big feast, my mom is outside pulling leeks from the ground. The next day, my dad piles them in wheelbarrow and carefully trims and cleans them outside (if you’re wondering, my mom braises them, halved, with butter, herbs, and broth to melt-in-your-mouth perfection).

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Photo by Erin McDowell

And on Turkey Day itself, I always wake up to the smell of butter and yeast; my mom always bakes her potato rolls first thing in the morning to free up the oven for the rest of the day. The smell is intoxicating, especially on an empty morning stomach, and anyone and everyone in the house tries to talk their way into stealing an ugly roll for breakfast (though this was generally discouraged by my mother). At the table, my dad always reads a poem before we eat, in lieu of a prayer. In homage to a family favorite movie, we say “The Dude abides” in unison instead of the more traditional “Amen.”

Ever since my love of pie blossomed, the days before Thanksgiving meant my favorite holiday tradition: I loaded up the car with flour, butter, sugar, and fruit and drove to my grandma’s house to bake pies. Her kitchen was tiny (I actually had to duck in one part to fit under a particularly low ceiling), and her house was in the middle of nowhere.

We would play music, or listen to "A Prairie Home Companion," or gab about nothing at all, while we cut butter into flour, making batch after batch of pie dough. We’d play cards while the dough chilled, and she usually made fried chicken or potato soup for lunch.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

The task was born out of necessity—not enough room or oven space at my parents' house to bake—but it slowly morphed into the day I looked forward to all year.

We would take turns peeling, slicing, mixing in sugar. We’d debate if Aunt Loisy would be mad if we put chocolate in the pecan pie, or if anyone would notice if we snuck a little bourbon into the apple. I’d joke about when Uncle Dave would show up (he notoriously strolls in later in the day, but always brings a couple growlers of damn good beer).

Photo by Erin McDowell

This day became even more special once I went away to college. If I was lucky, I’d come home three times a year, which was not nearly enough time to see my wonderful, big, boisterous family. And certainly not enough time to spend with my grandma, whom I eventually realized was one of my very best friends. We’d start planning “pie day” as early as September. It got to be so much fun that my brother even tagged along to learn how it was done.

Each year, we’d fill a table with four or five perfect (or in most cases, perfectly imperfect) pies, and then bask in the “ooohs” and “ahhhs” that came from my aunts, uncles, and cousins (my nieces and nephews have still, I’m sorry to say, not found their true pie path, and, come dessert time, opt for ice cream instead).

Photo by Erin McDowell

Four years ago, my grandma passed away, in early October. She was weeks away from her ninetieth birthday and the loss shook the whole family. She was our unassuming matriarch, and she tied us all together. The foggy cloud of grief followed us into the holiday season.

I remember that first year, returning home for Thanksgiving, I wondering if I’d have the strength to make the pies alone. I wondered how the table would feel without her, and I mourned the passing of my favorite tradition.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Thanksgiving morning, I woke up to the usual aromas floating through the house. I followed my nose into the kitchen, and poured myself a cup of coffee.

Not long after, my mom placed a roll on the counter near my cup. I looked up, but she was already across the counter, rounding up the softened butter she stashes near the toaster. I broke apart the roll, and applied butter liberally to each exposed surface, watching it melt into the spongy crumb. I took a bite; it was warm, soft but toothsome, and positively comforting.

Soon, my dad was at my side, slathering butter on his own roll. We sat and ate and caffeinated. It was just the most perfect start to the day. The next year, my mom pulled all the “ugly” rolls out and again, we devoured them for breakfast. And again, the following year.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

This year, as I was dreaming about Thanksgiving, I realized the thing I was most looking forward to was my early morning roll, sitting in the kitchen with my parents, brother, and plenty of butter. Enjoying the smells of apples and sage and just a touch of garlic while the house is still quiet with the anticipation of the party about to begin.

That’s the thing about traditions. Sometimes, they result from necessity. Sometimes, they’re the product of creativity. And sometimes, they simply begin, born of love, hunger, and slow-risen yeasted potato rolls.

Photo by Bobbi Lin
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Mama's Potato Clover Rolls

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Makes about 18 rolls
  • 6 cups (1 pound 9.50 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons (14 grams) instant yeast
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup (3.50 ounces) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (4.00 ounces) unsalted butter or shortening, room temperature (see author’s note above!)
  • 1 cup (about 1 large Russet potato) freshly mashed potatoes (meaning boil the potatoes, steam to dry, then mash)
  • 1 cup (8.00 ounces) warm water (95 to 100° F)
  • 2 (about 4.25 ounces) large eggs
  • 1/2 cup (4.00 ounces) unsalted butter, melted for brushing

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Tags: bread, rolls, thanksgiving, potato