Butter roll is chiefly flour, sugar, and butter with a pinch of this, a pinch of that. Recipes weren't generally written down for this soul food staple, and over time, it's been seen less and less on dining room tables.
"It's a recipe probably born out of economic necessity, but then adopted because of taste, and now celebrated in part out of nostalgia," according to Mary Beth Lasseter, associate director of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
"Back then, you had too far to go to get anything, and nobody was going too go far for dessert," says Doris McGhee, who bakes butter roll for her sister's restaurant the Dining Room on Lamar.
"My grandma just came up with the dessert with what she had in the kitchen. She didn't look it up or write it down. She just thought, 'we need some dessert,' so she came up with that."
When the Dining Room opened two years ago, patrons started asking about butter roll. McGhee has never seen a recipe for butter roll, and she didn't know anyone who made it.
"I went way back in my memory," McGhee said. "And I remembered the smell, and I remembered the flour, and I got my thinking process together. I was always in the kitchen standing around when I was 10. I remember the cinnamon and the nutmeg and the butter, but I had to think on it for about a month to pull it together."
McGhee makes butter roll by filling biscuit dough with cinnamon and nutmeg. She rolls it up tightly and bakes the pan in 2 percent milk and sugar. The result is sweet gravy smothering a doughy crepe that's so packed with cinnamon it's almost spicy.
When McGhee prepares butter roll on Saturday mornings, the line goes out the door. Most of the people who recognize the dish are between 40 and 60 years old, and they're all grateful that McGhee unearthed what their grandmothers never wrote down.
In 2009, Shelbi Sellers and her husband were at a local restaurant when they caught that sweet smell. She spent the next week in the kitchen trying different combinations while pulling to the forefront what she absorbed from childhood experiences in the kitchen with her great-grandmother who was "the butter roll queen of North Memphis."
Her dish was a hit, and now, she shares her creations as Ms. Shelbi L. Southern Belle Gourmet Butter Rolls. In addition to what she calls the butter roll classic, Sellers also makes seasonal flavors to-order such as cranberry rum glaze and pink champagne.
In her nod to authenticity, Sellers makes her butter roll very plainly. She starts with biscuit dough and then brushes it with butter and a bit of nutmeg and salt. She rolls it up and cuts the dough like one does with cinnamon rolls. The rolls bake in a bath of condensed milk and butter, and the smell of the thick custard hits you before it even gets out of the oven.
"Smells and how people make you feel, you never forget," Sellers said.
The butter roll has had its time as the dressed-up poor man's dessert. Chef Felicia Willett has featured it on her menu, and she and University Club chef Stan Gibson have also prepared butter roll at the exalted James Beard House in New York City.
Sellers calls what she does a "lost art." The butter roll is moslty known to specific demographics, and it is at risk of becoming extinct. Presentation isn't what defines a butter roll. It's born out of the desire to make something sweet out of hardship. There can't be a universal origin because it sprang from the hands of women who wanted to make food stretch while satisfying the heart.
Although they have different methods, both women agree that butter roll has to be made from scratch. Anything else is just plain wrong.
Ms. Shelbi L. Southern Belle Gourmet Butter Rolls: Facebook.com/GourmetButterRolls