Beyond Words
(from August 2011 issue of Nashville Arts Magazine)

By Marshall Chapman

Cornbread or Rolls?

That question gets asked a lot around Nashville.  And unless I’m at Rotier’s, it’s hard to answer.  But at Rotier’s it’s easy.

“Rolls!” I say, without hesitation.

Sometimes I drift by Rotier’s in the mid afternoon when it’s quiet and peaceful. I usually grab a newspaper, or talk with Margaret Anne (whose parents founded Rotier’s in 1945) or Eddie Cartwright who’s been working there for over twenty years.

“You doin’ all right?” Eddie asks.

“Oh, I can’t complain,” I say.

Eddie is good at reading customers. He instinctively knows when to leave you alone and when to engage in conversation.

One recent afternoon, I ordered fried chicken, green beans, and mashed potatoes (with brown gravy) along with the requisite rolls. (I like to save the rolls for last, so I can savor them as you would a crème brûlée. )

“What about dessert?” the waitress asks.

“These rolls are my dessert,” I reply. The waitress raises an eyebrow and moves on.

I’ve been eating at Rotier’s for over forty years. Ever since they had pinball machines (that paid) back in the late 60s, early 70s. You’d think after all that time, I’d become immune to their rolls, but it seems my appreciation only grows with the years.

“Oh, my God!” I call out, as I bite into my first buttery roll, still warm from the oven. Later I engage Margaret Anne in conversation.

“Tell me about the rolls,” I say.

“Well, a couple of years ago, we tried to upgrade and switched to a specialty brand, but our customers complained. ‘What’s happened to your rolls?!’ they asked. So we went back to the old brand.”

“What brand is that?”

“Bunny Bread. It’s now owned by Lewis Bakeries in Evansville [Indiana].”

I ask to see a box. Margaret Anne brings one from the kitchen. It has a picture of a smiling bunny on it. ORIGINAL ENRICHED FLAKE ROLLS – BROWN ‘N SERVE, it says.

“What about the butter?” I ask, laughing.

“Well, we brush the rolls with butter while they’re browning, then we serve them up with little individual containers of butter.”

I realize I have never opened one of those little individual containers. I can’t imagine adding more butter to the already buttery rolls. Why mess with perfection?