Stick to Your Buns

Holidays in my family are food-mad. We obsess over how many dishes we should prepare, swell with ideas to execute. Tables creak under our feats of dough and cheese. There is not enough Tupperware in the world for the leftovers; our meals cannot be contained. We save a special reverence, though, for the recipes that fortify multiple generations. One of those: my grandma Ruth’s sticky buns.

Sugar was a key ingredient in my grandparents’ life. Sweetness was their constant gift. Earl showered sugar on strawberries, churned ice cream, and reveled in a simple box of donut holes. Ruth plied sugar in her recipes.

This woman contained multitudes, and was an artist in everything. We still use the beautiful things she made. But about those buns: they are a mix of postwar food engineering and the time-tested tradition of simply waiting for your dough to rise. Butterscotch pudding mix, frozen dinner rolls, and plenty of butter – it’s a special kind of glue.

Christmas at my grandparents’ house in Iowa meant Ruth was going to make us her sticky buns (“overnite rolls” in her recipe). They were simple to make, but added to the agonizing wait of Christmas Eve, as you couldn’t have those suckers until the next morning. They had to rise. We’d “help” by buttering the Bundt pan (“largest gold mix bowl”) and putting in the frozen rolls, while Ruth stood at the stove, mixing a glorious caramel cover for those soon-to-be buns. After we marveled at her pour-over skills, blanketing the buns in liquid sugar, she wrapped the whole package tight with foil and shooed us out of the kitchen. The wait began.

Ruth’s handwritten recipe bears the stains of many a stick of butter, and probably grubby grandchild hands trying to sneak a taste. The sticky bun is a franchise that Ruth started and we inherited. We can’t let it die. Now that both she and Earl are gone, it would mean too much of a loss to consider risking.

In this family, food is love. You can tell someone how much they mean to you, but will they truly know it until you make them something that took time, took effort, took the part of your brain that responds to sweetness and wants to transfer it to them? This recipe is a caramel adhesive for Ruth’s ancestors, and we dutifully carry out her cursive instructions. The conjuring is strong. Time and talismans guide us, our recipes for climbing through the years.

The morning after these buns have risen, we take the foil off the Bundt pan and put it in the oven. The kitchen begins to smell the way it did in Ruth’s house. Out of the oven, our sticky buns awash in a golden brown river of caramelized sugar, we smile at each other through massive bites of bun. This sweetness is what gave us this family.