Sweet Roll Swan Song 

By Robert St. John

December is considered the month for giving in these parts, but something is going on in February. Last week I was gifted an organized binder filled with many of my original handwritten recipes from the early days at my first restaurant. This week through the love, care and concern of one of my longest standing friendships, I received one of the most thoughtful gifts imaginable.

First, a little backstory. I grew up in a unique neighborhood during a very unique time. My father and all his friends bought lots next to each other in a burgeoning and upcoming subdivision in what was then considered West Hattiesburg, Miss. These guys had grown up together — many since elementary school. They purchased lots next door, across the street and down the street from each other. The beauty in the genius of that plan was that all the couples started having children around the same time. So, I grew up in a neighborhood where every house was filled with kids around my age.

My father’s best friend, Jimmy McKenzie, lived across the street. They had also bought starter houses across the street from each other. As the plans were being designed for our home, my father passed away. My mother scaled down the plans and built the house on the original lot, anyway. She wanted us to be raised around men who were my father’s friends. It was one of the greatest things she ever did for me.

I have hundreds of stories about each of these men and women who lived within a couple of blocks of my childhood home. My early adolescence is filled with wonderful memories of growing up around those people.

One of those people — and one of the most memorable and wonderful memories I have — was Mary Virginia McKenzie. The McKenzies lived directly across the street as they had in our previous home. Mary Virginia was an excellent cook. But of all the things she cooked, one thing stands out more than almost anything from my childhood and adult culinary memories, her orange sweet rolls.

Mary Virginia’s orange sweet rolls are legendary in this town. She gifted them to hundreds of her friends over a 40-year period. As a child we always received several packages of sweet rolls for Christmas and Easter. Also, anytime anything notable happened in the life of our family — whether it was my childhood family or my grown-up family with wife and kids — we were gifted Mary Virginia sweet rolls.

Giving the gift of food is always special. Receiving something that tastes so good makes it even more special. If my son had an exceptional soccer game we could expect a few dozen Mary Virginia sweet rolls in a plastic bag hanging on the doorknob in the carport when we came home. If our daughter got a lead in a play or had a dance recital they would be waiting afterwards, or at least arrive the next day. That’s probably part of the reason I pushed my kids to succeed.

All holidays were occasions to receive Mary Virginia sweet rolls. This went on for decades and decades and decades. I consider myself blessed for many reasons, not the least of which is I spent all my childhood and most of my first 50 years on this planet eating one of the greatest breakfast treats in existence.

Once my son reached his preteens and teen years there was always a fight when sweet rolls arrived at our house. If I wasn’t at home when they were delivered, he could put away a full tin of sweet rolls mid-afternoon. No milk, no water, just a boy, a fork and a few spare minutes.

Mary Virginia made sweet rolls every Saturday morning for decades. I’m not ashamed to admit that I sometimes found excuses too show up at the McKenzie home on Saturday mornings with a gift, or an errand, or just a pop-in to say, “hi.” It just so happened that the timing of my visit usually coincided with the baking of the sweet rolls on Saturday morning.

“Thanks for bringing that by, Robert. Here, have some of these freshly made sweet rolls.”

“No, I couldn’t do that. I am here to deliver this gift from Jill.”

“Don’t be silly I’ve just made a new batch of sweet rolls this morning. Take a few tins.”

“Thank you, Mary Virginia. If you insist.”

Through the years I hoarded and stocked up on Mary Virginia’s orange sweet rolls. If she brought five or six tins around Christmas, I would only pull out two on Christmas morning. I would leave the rest in the freezer and strategically and systematically dole them out over the following months. There is no way they would last until Easter, but I could hold on to the hope that one of the kids would do something special and we would get a supplementary delivery before the next spring holiday.

As my son grew older my methods of hiding the sweet rolls became more stealth and I became quite crafty at finding new hiding places for sweet rolls in the freezer. I think I even slipped them in an empty pizza box once. Even the end-all punishment of taking the cell phone if he ate any of the sweet rolls without permission wouldn’t stop him. He deemed Mary Virginia’s sweet rolls punishment worthy. He was right.

Mary Virginia is alive and well but retired from weekly sweet roll baking several years ago. She’s earned her retirement. I am not regretful in the least. Actually, I am grateful, on behalf of me, my family and the hundreds of other families and thousands of other kids that were fortunate enough to have been gifted Mary Virginia’s sweet rolls over the years.

Today, I am especially grateful for my friend Carolyn who has been saving one last batch of sweet rolls in her freezer for a long time. She gave them to me while I ate breakfast in The Midtowner this morning. I feel blessed to be sweet-roll worthy in her eyes.

Giving the gift of food is special. When that gift is the last known tin of Mary Virginia McKenzie’s sweet rolls on the planet it is unparalleled. Now I am going to go lock myself in a closet and eat the rarest of rare culinary commodities— the last remaining Mary Virgina’s sweet rolls on the planet.


Mary Virginia’s Orange Sweet Rolls

1 batch                                    Icebox Roll Dough  

1 stick                                     Butter

1 1 /4 cup                               Granulated sugar

1 1 /2 Tbl                                Cinnamon

1 lb                                          Confectioner’s sugar

Grated rind of two navel oranges

Enough orange juice to make a glaze

Using melted butter, grease six aluminum-foil lined nine-inch cake pans.

Roll out Icebox Roll dough into a large rectangle (1 foot by 3 feet). Sprinkle with granulated sugar and cinnamon.

Roll up dough, jellyroll style, from the long side. Cut 3 /4-inch thick and place into prepared cake pans. Let rise until doubled in size (about 1 hour).

Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.

Make a glaze using confectioner’s sugar, orange rind and orange juice. Ice rolls while they are hot. These rolls freeze well in zip-loc bags, but if you are like me, they won’t last long enough to make it to the freezer. Yield: Not enough.

Icebox Roll Dough

1 cup               Boiling water

1 cup               Shortening (or 2 sticks of butter)

1 cup               Sugar

1 1 /2 tsp         Salt

2                      Eggs (large)

2 Tbl               Yeast (2 packages)

1 cup               Warm water

Dash                Sugar

6 cups              Flour

Pour water over shortening, sugar and salt. Blend and let cool. Add eggs and beat well. Let yeast stand in water with a dash of sugar until bubbly.

Add yeast mixture to shortening mixture when it is absolutely cool. Then beat in the flour. Cover and refrigerate three to four hours.

Remove dough from refrigerator and knead with any extra flour you may need. Roll out, form or cut as needed. Let rolls rise until doubled and bake at 350 degrees until done and nicely browned.

Dough can be held in refrigerator before the kneading/proofing stage for five days (dough must be wrapped tightly with plastic wrap to keep air from reaching the dough). To bake pull out the desired amount, knead, proof and bake. Yield: a lot.

(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author from Hattiesburg, Miss.)

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