LEIGH WRIGHT (this article was first published on August 20, 2012)
I can come up with a childhood memory and perhaps a hundred more in a split second. It’s not so much a skill as it is a longing for times when I played the “lava” game around a swing set, couldn’t step on the cracks in the sidewalk, or, especially, the times taken for granted when a hot meal was placed before you the moment you walked into the kitchen. These are the memories that I hold dear and there is one that will always signify family get-togethers and Sunday lunches on our screen porch: a tin foil pan of Sister Schubert’s warm, golden rolls.
Stumbling down the stairs with a bird’s nest for hair and eyes still bleary and bloodshot, I can remember trying to be first to the table to grab three or four rolls in my pudgy, tiny hands. When I was growing up I remembered the orange, cinnamon, sausage wrapped, or regular rolls. Now, there are thirteen or more products in the Sister Schubert line. Although I have not tried all of them I would put my name on it that they are as delicious as the ones from my childhood.
Generally I write food “history” articles, but what are memories if not celebrated history? And hot dinner rolls with a browned outside and fluffy-white interior with fried chicken and slaw, or cinnamon and white iced rolls and a breakfast casserole are certainly definition memories. This is where I believe my obsession (let’s call it a healthy obsession) with food and its surrounding culture began. I realized that a meal was more than consumption. A meal, if consisting of the right elements, could foster a happy environment and bring about fond memories. It was over one of these family meals when my aunt told me that Sister herself had sold her first rolls at her church. There, even in my childlike wisdom, I appreciated that the creator, baker, and maker of these products was not only from Alabama, my home state, but I had a tie to her. Well, kind of.
It would take me almost twelve years to finally meet Sister Schubert, now Sister Barnes, but when I did she was everything I had imagined a sweet and loving baker would be, and more. It was at that same church when I first encountered her. Her brunette hair was perfectly fashioned just like the picture on the packaging, but she personifies the Southern matriarch even more that I had imagined. With children trying to climb up and down the pews Sister still never loses attention or her cool, but takes everything in stride, and after learning more about her I can understand how her patience has been molded.
This article stems from my long-held fascination with Sister Schubert’s story and rolls. And unlike my memories of meeting other role models of mine, who would turn me away, leaving me disappointed and deflected, speaking with Sister gives one a sense of joyful renewal. It’s the same feeling you get when diving into one of her cinnamon rolls on a “wintry” Alabama morning. The way she speaks, ending on higher notes for positive words such as “yes!” and “Why, thank you!”, brings about a subtle yet relaxing feeling of being at home. Much like Schubert rolls.
This article stems from my long-held fascination with Sister Schubert’s story and rolls. My memory of meeting Sister is unlike my memories of meeting other role models of mine, who would turn me away, leaving me disappointed and deflected. The way Sister speaks, with higher notes for positive words such as “yes!” and “Why, thank you!”, would make even the saddest of listeners smile. Much like Schubert rolls.
Sister’s story is quintessentially Southern in every way. It’s simple, but created and maintained through hard work and dedication. Sister Schubert started her business in Troy, Alabama at her local church. However, her baking and cooking skills were sharpened decades before, when, like any good Southern child, she began to help prepare family and holiday meals with her grandmother. At 12 years old she would mix, roll, cut, and bake every roll of her grandmother’s recipe, Parker House rolls, from scratch as her addition to the family feast. Fortunately for the rest of us her love of baking and sharing her recipes did not stop there.
In 1989, for her local church charity event, Sister made 20 pans of her rolls and had to increase her production to 200 pans the following year! As her rolls and reputation began to be quickly consumed across Alabama she created her first bakery in her sun porch and then turned her bakery into a business in a commercial bakery in her father’s renovated furniture warehouse. Her website states that by 1998 they were producing over 1 million rolls a day in Sister’s bakery in Luverne. When I spoke with her recently they had expanded with bakeries in Mobile and Kentucky. Sister has earned my respect now by not only creating a loving and memorable face and name to put to Southern food and culture, but for never losing sight of an important factor of our cuisine, which is caring about the creation and product.
I hope that a majority of readers know of the iconic malleable metal pan that holds small hills of hot, soft, yeasty rolls – the kind that disappear quicker than anything else on the table. Instead of the flaky crescents or preservative biscuits of her competitors, Sister’s rolls still use whole milk, flour, and eggs. Whether you buy one or ten pans of Sister Schubert’s rolls for family-style eating, there will never be enough.