My mother made Hot Cross Buns on every Good Friday of my childhood. And while I have lovely memories of coming home from school to find a fresh batch on the kitchen counter (sometimes with extra frosting left in the bowl!) my favorite Hot Cross Bun memory comes from my adulthood, and from China. This story is not meant to be thought-provoking or challenging in any way. Rather it is a cherished moment of my life that I felt inspired to share.
If you’re not familiar with Hot Cross Buns, you can learn a quick bit about them here.
I was 26 years old. I was less than a month away from my wedding. I was in Shanghai in the middle of a two-week business trip to my company’s Japan and China offices. So things in my life were pretty calm at the time. Right.
I’d spent the first week of the trip in Japan. Sushi, tempura, industry trade show – all the usual suspects. The second week took us to Shanghai for a 5-day training session with our Pac Rim distributors. We were staying at the St. Regis hotel which was then, and is still, the most mind-bogglingly luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in. I had a personal butler assigned to me at check-in. The room was huge and stunning; the bathroom even more so. Every time I left my room – even if it was just to run down to the hotel gym for a quick workout – someone came in and refolded the towels, tidied my toiletries, smoothed the duvet, and tucked under the corners of the toilet paper. And every afternoon around 2:00 a snack was delivered to my room on a silver tray. It was usually a pastry of some kind. Something delectable that made me slide to the floor and want to never return home. (What wedding? GAP once lived in China. Surely I could find a back-up version of him running around somewhere, right?)
I spent each day in a hotel ballroom, giving presentations on the key selling points of my company’s products, changes to the competitive landscape, and pricing and discount structures. I’d eaten all of the local fare that was served and had, for the most part, been delighted by how much I loved it. Cuttlefish, jellyfish, whole roasted fish, seaweed salad, etc. Business dinners each evening featured dishes that rotated among the traditional menus of our distributors’ home countries – Thai, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia. I was lost in an international smorgasbord.
I’d gone sight-seeing with a colleague one afternoon and eaten dumplings purchased from a street vendor that have never been matched by any I’ve eaten since. The bread was fried crisp on the outside and chewy underneath. The broth inside was rich, salty, and surprisingly hot. It dripped all the way down my forearms and I actually licked some of it off. The bite of pork in the middle was tender and fatty and melted on my tongue. I was in a food nirvana.
I was also reaching a saturation point of visual stimulation. Ancient gardens, Confucian temples, giant Buddhas everywhere. My colleague and I had a personal local tour guide for two days who took us into nooks and crannies of her city that we’d never have found (or braved) on our own. I was absorbing the culture around me like a parched sponge. I had moments of homesickness, but for the most part I’d been able to separate myself from the impending wedding and gotten lost in the world around me. And so it was that when Good Friday rolled around at the end of my trip I was barely aware of it.
That day our business agenda reached its scheduled afternoon break. I returned to my room upstairs where I looked forward to slipping out of my heels, collapsing onto the fluffy bed, and delicately tearing into whatever scone, éclair, or other confection might be awaiting me. I opened the door, walked into that now-familiar and serene retreat of a room, and stopped cold. There, on the silver tray, was a porcelain plate with two Hot Cross Buns.
They were beautiful. Golden dough glazed with egg whites and studded with raisins. Iced by hand with careful, but not perfect, crosses. I was so touched by the gesture that I almost couldn’t bring myself to eat them. But I did. They lacked the delicate crumb and subtle sweetness of my mother’s, but it was irrelevant. I was as far away from home – geographically, culturally, metaphorically – as I’d ever been. And yet a hallmark of my childhood sat before me on a silver tray.
I still don’t know the answers to all the questions that spun through my head as I ate my Hot Cross Buns. How did they know these tiny details of Christian culinary heritage? Did they know I was a Christian? Did everyone in the hotel get Hot Cross Buns for their snack that day? Or was it just for the Westerners whom they thought might enjoy a taste of home. Did they have any idea how their thoughtfulness would strike deep to the heart of me?
Since I’d left home after college I’d never made Hot Cross Buns of my own. I guess I didn’t realize what meaning they held for me. But in that moment I became keenly aware of their significance; significance to which I’d been heretofore oblivious. The next year I made my first batch of Hot Cross Buns. Neither did they measure up to my mother’s, but they were good. And they were mine. And it felt good to take my traditions into my own hands. I have plenty of time to perfect my technique.
I haven’t made them every year. But I will make them this year. I think IEP would like them very much. And I want his memories of them to be as ingrained as my own.
*This post was originally published on Good Friday last year. I loved it then and thought it worth recycling this year.