Every memory I have of my Aunt Rita is set on the backdrop of food. Every Thanksgiving the aunts, uncles and cousins would all crowd into Aunt Rita and Uncle Earl’s tiny home, the men in the living room watching sports and the women in the kitchen preparing dinner.
Aunt Rita was small and soft and one of the best cooks I’ve ever met. I still remember the smell of her fried potatoes sizzling in a heavy cast iron skillet. Her pies baked in well-worn pie tins, the bottoms rippled with countless knives cutting thick slices. We cousins delighted in Aunt Rita’s heavy-handed scoops of ice cream that we ate noisily around a wobbly card table wedged in one of the bedrooms.
But it was Aunt Rita’s yeast rolls that she was famous for. Brown and crusty on the outside, impossibly airy on the inside. She brought them to every gathering, nestled in a metal pan with a dishcloth draped over them to keep them warm. They always stood at the end of the buffet line, the crowning glory. We ate them dripping with butter. Murmuring with delight.
And every Thanksgiving, Aunt Rita slipped some of those yeast rolls into a bag for me. In my mind, I’m the only one who got one of those bags. But maybe I’m wrong. I doled them out the next morning for breakfast, where we smeared them with Country Crock and and toasted them in the oven. We ate them with leftover ham. We rationed them. And we were sad when they were gone.
Last night, I got the call I’ve been expecting for weeks. Years, if I’m perfectly honest. Aunt Rita had died.
The last time I saw her, a few months ago, she was just a shell of the woman I knew. She was mute, confined to a wheelchair. But somehow, I knew she recognized me. She tried to say my name but could only get out the first letter, “Buh, buh buh…”
I left the house in tears. Ashamed at how uncomfortable I felt. Broken by the knowledge that my Aunt Rita was already gone.
When I got up this morning, the first thing I did upon stumbling into the kitchen was go to my shelf of cookbooks. I dug through them until I saw the familiar brown spiral binding. I pulled it off the shelf and flipped it open. It was a cookbook compiled by the women who worked at the sewing plant my aunt had retired from. I turned to the bread section. It was the first recipe.
Aunt Rita’s yeast rolls.
I toyed with the idea of making them today. In her honor. But I knew they wouldn’t taste like hers. My hands would be clumsy where hers were practiced. My pans are not weathered enough. My kitchen table is not seasoned enough. My heart is not ready.
Instead I poached an egg and slid it onto a piece of toast covered with smashed avocado. I fried up some bacon in my cast iron skillet and crumbled it on top. I sliced a peach and made a cup of coffee. And then I sat on my couch, a quilt pulled over my lap, and read the recipe for Aunt Rita’s yeast rolls.
Eight cups of flour that she would dump into a mixing bowl, sending up a cloud of white.
One quart of milk, with the rest of the gallon going into the cereal she fed me for breakfast when I stayed the night.
Two packages of yeast sprinkled lightly with a flick of her wrist.
Half a cup of sugar, never measured, always eye-balled.
One and a half teaspoons of salt, pinched between her callused fingers.
Three-fourths of a stick of margarine that she worked into the dough, her hands shiny and skilled.
Baked in a 400 degree oven for 25 minutes. Brushed with butter.
Eat. Enjoy. Murmur. Delight.
We’ll miss you Aunt Rita.