History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

19 November 2008

Great Buns! Parker House Rolls & other Eponymous Foods

Omni Parker House Lobby, Boston, MA

There's something timeless about "grande dame" hotels. They possess a certain brand of elegance you no longer see in hostelries constructed of glass and steel with their monochromatic linens and minimalist furnishings. Where's the comfort in that? Give me the landlubber's equivalent of the Queen Mary (now a rather fun historical hotel permanently docked in Long Beach, CA), with lots of warm tones, polished wood, plush carpets, and afternoon teas with sterling silver flatware. Give me glamour. Give me faded elegance restored to its original lustre (or even a smidge on the tatty, much-loved side; that's okay, too). Give me a hotel with a past.
Or a repast.

One of the many reasons I loved to visit my maternal grandmother was because she served "Parker House" rolls at dinner. I never saw her actually bake any bread from scratch so I'm sure they came from an Arnold's or Pepperidge Farm package, but the rolls were warm and buttery and yummy. They would have been my equivalent of madeleines, but she baked those too. And those were from scratch.

In the past couple of months I've visited Boston a few times; I found myself in the Parker House Hotel on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the year for Jews, but right now all you really need to know about the holiday is that you're supposed to fast until sundown. I was hungry by afternoon's end, counting down the minutes, point-shaving, inventing rationales in order to eat sooner rather than later. If it's a cloudy day, does that mean the sun is already down? In any event, I had both motive and opportunity and was determined to break my fast with a first-ever, actually-from-the-source Parker House Roll.

I'm still touched by the fact that, after I explained why I wanted them (from anecdotal information about my grandmother to holy fast day) and took out my wallet, the hotel staffers didn't charge me for the rolls. They were kindness itself, which made the bread, gleaned from the courteousness of strangers, taste even more delicious.
I savored each warm bite, closed my eyes, thought of my grandmother, and let the bread melt on my tongue. It didn't disappoint. So I ate three more. And I have been thinking (and exercising) ever since about eponymous food and the origins of, and history behind recipes that have entered our collective culinary lexicon.
Boston boasts the Parker House Roll. And then there's its British cousin, the Sally Lunn Bun (sometimes called the Bath Bun) made famous at Sally Lunn's bakery in the oldest standing house in the city of Bath. The building itself dates to 1482, long before Sally arrived.

From Sally Lunn's website, we have the history of Sally and her famous creation, an adaptation of the manchet, or traditional English West-country yeast bread:

History - Sally Lunn, the original Bath Bun & the Oldest House in Bath

In a nutshell....

Sally Lunn, a young French refugee, arrived in England over 300 years ago. She found work at what is now known as Sally Lunn's House and began to bake a rich round and generous bread now known as the Sally Lunn Bun. This bun became a very popular delicacy in Georgian England as its special taste and lightness allowed it to be enjoyed with either sweet or savoury accompaniments. Many attempts have been made to copy our world famous Bun with little success. The story of Sally Lunn's House starts long before the arrival of Sally Lunn in 1680 - our museum shows the history of Bath's oldest house many hundreds of years before the current timber framed construction - when you visit you will see the Roman and Medieval foundations of the house and finds from excavations. You will also see the original kitchen that was used by Sally Lunn. You can see images of the museum in our photo gallery. The original 'Bath Bun' is in fact The Sally Lunn Bun – so which bun is which?

The Sally Lunn Bun is the Original Bath Bun.

It is a rich round and generous brioche bun’ similar to the historic French festival ‘breads’. Sally Lunn, a Huguenot refugee (perhaps better known as Solange Luyon) came to Bath in 1680 via Bristol after escaping persecution in France. In Lilliput Alley she found work with the baker and introduced her now famous light and delicate ‘bun’ to pre Georgian Bath. Sally’s fame, together with that of her bun grew and grew alongside that of the city of Bath. Versions of the Sally Lunn Bun can be found around the world in Canada, The United States, New Zealand and Australia. Further, even in the UK attempts have been made to copy the original Sally Lunn Bun. The original and very secret recipe is passed on with the deeds to Sally Lunn’s house and is still made by us by hand.

All things evolve and become copied over time. Recipes claiming to be similar to Sally Lunn buns can be found in publications dating back to early in the eighteenth century.

Elizabeth David, who wrote the definitive book: English Bread and Yeast Cookery in 1977, suggests from her extensive research that Sally Lunn Buns with their delicate and light personality “differed greatly from a version downgraded by bakers into the amorphous, artificially coloured, synthetically flavoured and over-sugared confections we know today. This London Bath bun should, I believe, be distinguished from the Bath Bun of Bath”

Notice the words "very secret recipe." They so taste like a giant brioche, actually, only less flavorful. Served "sweet" or "savory" depending on what you put on them, their very neutrality complements the taste of the accompanying accoutrements.

However, the Parker House Hotel's website offers the original receipe right online to their eponymous rolls, as well as the recipe for Boston Cream Pie, also a Parker House culinary invention. The pie, close in size to a cupcake, is delectable and tastes nothing at all like anything else I've ever seen masquerading as Boston Cream Pie, so beware of cheap imitations as they say.

Parker's Restaurant, where Parker House Rolls and Boston Cream Pie originated

The original recipe for Parker House Rolls

6 cups All-purpose flour
½ cups Sugar
2 tsp. Salt
2 pkg. Active dry yeast
1 cup Margarine or butter (2 sticks) softened
1 Large egg

Method: (about 3 ½ hours before serving)

1. In large bowl, combine 2 ¼ cups flour, sugar, salt, and yeast; add ½ cup
Margarine or butter (1 stick). With mixer at low speed, gradually pour 2 cups hot tap water (120 degrees to 130 degrees F.) into dry ingredients. Add egg; increase speed to medium; beat 2 minutes, scraping bowl with rubber spatula. Beat in ¾ cup flour or enough to make a thick batter; continue beating 2 minutes, occasionally scraping bowl. With spoon, stir in enough additional flour (about 2 ½ cups) to make a soft dough.

2. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about
10 minutes, working in more flour (about ½ cups) while kneading. Shape dough into a ball and place in greased large bowl, turning over so that top of dough is greased. Cover with towel; let rise in warm place (80-85 degrees F.) until doubled, about 1 ½ hours. (Dough is doubled when two fingers pressed into dough leave dent.)

3. Punch down dough by pushing down the center of dough with fist, then pushing
Edges of dough into center. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface; knead lightly to make smooth ball; cover with bowl for 15 minutes and let dough rest.

4. In 17 ¼ inch by 11 ½ inch roasting pan, over low heat, melt remaining ½ cup
Margarine or butter; tilt pan to grease bottom.

5. On lightly floured surface with floured rolling pin, roll dough ½ inch thick. With
Floured 2 ¾ inch round cutter, cut dough into circles. Holding dough circle by the edge, dip both sides into melted margarine or butter in pan; fold in half. Knead trimmings together; re-roll and cut more rolls. Cover pan with towel; let dough rise in warm place until doubled, about 40 minutes.

6. Bake rolls in a 400-degree oven 15-18 minutes until browned.

Yield: About 3 ½ dozen.

The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, across the street from St. Bart's Church

Another "comfort food" I grew up with was Waldorf Salad, though I confess I've never had it from the source, Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria hotel, still posh on Park Avenue (apart from the odd burst of gunfire, but we like to keep the tourists entertained).

According to the American Century Cookbook, the first Waldorf Salad was created in New York City in 1893, by Oscar Tschirky, the maître d'hôtel of the Waldorf Astoria. The original recipe consisted only of diced red-skinned apples, celery, and mayonnaise. Chopped walnuts were added later to this now American classic.

Waldorf Salad Recipe

1/2 cup chopped, slightly toasted walnuts
1/2 cup celery, thinly sliced
1/2 cup red seedless grapes, sliced (or a 1/4 cup of raisins)
1 sweet apple, cored and chopped
3 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise (or yogurt) and the lemon juice. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper. Mix in the apple, celery, grapes, and walnuts. Serve on a bed of fresh lettuce.

Serves 2.

What about you? What eponymous foods have tempted your palate over the years? Have you ever used any of them in a book? Or, have you ever created a fictional place and an accompanying specialty of the house for it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I stayed at the Fairmont New Orleans for the RWA Conference, where Huey Long used to drink the Ramos Gin Fizz when it was the Roosevelt Hotel. I felt like I was sipping a piece of history as I sat in the Sazerac Bar. I also had the Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's where it originated, because my ex wanted to sit in the same room that was featured in JFK. Unfortunately it was one of the worst meals I've ever had in my life, despite the ambiance of sitting in one of New Orleans oldest restaurants. Oh and of course Hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's. Come to think of it most of the eponymous foods I've eaten have been in New Orleans. I'm dying to go to Delmonico's in New York to have the Lobster Newburg, one day when I hit the lottery.

5:21 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I still have some hurricane mix from Pat O'Briens, as well as some of the glasses they serve them in. I drag everything out on Mardi Gras. Is the Sazerac bar where the Sazerac Sling originated? That was a really popular cocktail in the 1940s and 50s. The only time I ate at Antoine's it was pretty awful, too. I think they must be coasting on their reputation.

There was a restaurant my mother used to go to in Hollywood when she was a little girl where the Noodles Romanoff recipe originated. She used to make it for my sister and me when we were kids. (It's got melted cheddar and a touch of sour cream, plus seasoning like paprika ... at least that's how my mother made it).

5:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never heard of the Sazerac Sling. I do know that the Sazerac drink, which is the official cocktail of New Orleans, originated at Antoine's back in the 1830's when the food was probably still good.

Your mom probably went to Romanoff's which was owned by an actor who claimed to be the nephew of Tsar Nicholas II. Rice-A-Roni used to actually sell a boxed version of Noodles Romanoff.

5:50 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I haven't eaten breakfast yet, and after Amanda's wonderful, mouth-watering post I'm starving! I love old hotels. And I love trying specialty foods and old cocktails, particularly in the setting in which they've been invented. I don't think I've ever used any in a book though (I did dine at Rules Restaurant in Covent Garden, and I'd love to set a scene there). A friend and I invented a cocktail and named it after my heroine Melanie, but it's not something have her drink in a book because it's definitely not Regency. It's half vanilla Stoli and half lillet blanc, shaken and served up with a twist. Another friend says I have to invent a drink for Charles now, but I haven't managed to do so so far :-).

10:41 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...


Sazerac Slings are in one of the songs from "Company"--"she has a weakness for Sazerac Slings/Give her even the fruit and she swings."

10:42 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I adore Rules, Tracy, ever since I found out that Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson dined there. And when I treated myself to lunch there during Trafalgar Week in 2005, I was serendipitously seated across from a bust of Nelson.

I think there's a character (a politician's blowsy wife) in the marvelous Tracy & Hepburn classic, "State of the Union." And I'd forgotten about the lyric from "Company." Thanks for the reminder! But now I definitely want to taste the "Melanie."

11:03 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Yes, there's a politician's wife in "Stae of the Union" who drinks Sazracs--that's the first place I heard of them (but I don't remember the "slings" part of the name from there). My favorite restaurant in San Francisco now knows how to make the "Melanie" cocktail :-).

11:36 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love the idea of these grande dame foods, Amanda. So proper, so sure of themselves, so slightly bland and snootily rich. Makes me feel like the little matchgirl, but in a fun, fantasy way.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

You got me thinking, Pam ... as you always do. Excluding Sally Lunn's, which isn't a hotel, nor is it on this side of the pond, those eponymous grande dame hotel specialties are haute-WASP cuisine, likely created by immigrant chefs which became quintessentially "American" dishes.

What a country!

1:06 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Were most of them immigrant chefs, Amanda? I hadn't realized. But yes, that kind of very establishment culture (the styles and objects that its younger generation no doubt want nothing to do with) exerts a sneaky erotic pull on me -- even as re-enacted in a Ralph Lauren ad; a Laurie Colwin novel (all she has to do is spin off a phrase like, "a few good pieces of furniture from their families" and I go all marshmallow inside); or The Philadelphia Story.

Only in America.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I think many, but not all of these restaurant chefs who created the signature dishes we've been mentioning were immigrants, or at least of ethnic stock.

I completely "get" the Ralph Lauren ethos being a Jew from the Bronx who is an utter anglophile, like RL himself. The Oh-the-carefree-ease-of-gracious-living-and-old-money" Gatsbyesque "lifestyle" he peddles has always appealed to me.

And as for The Philadelphia Story--well, that's my favorite movie for any number of reasons (and I've played Tracy Lord, too, onstage). I adore lines like "With the rich and mighty--always a little patience" and "Save me--it's a Gilbert Stuart!" Don't ask me why I relate to her character so much, when my own background is almost as far from WASPy Mainline Philadelphia as one can get.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The theme of outsiders becoming style mavens and insiders (or trying to in the face of fickle fortune) informs a great deal of my work, Amanda. Marina in The Edge of Impropriety is an Irish striver (as was her inspiration, Lady Blessington). And Emma Hamilton, whom you've written about with such verve and empathy in Too Great a Lady, was, of course, the consummate almost-insider and a world of style unto herself.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks, Pam! I'd venture to add that my personal identification with the outsider's efforts to assimilate (or not, and to what degree, and what are the consequences) have tremendously informed my choices of subject matter for my novels. I certainly chose to illuminate Emma Hamilton's life because I identified with her in many respects. Ditto for Mary Robinson, another woman who picked herself up, dusted herself off and threw herself into the next thing with gusto. Survivors, all.

8:32 AM  

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