The delectable history behind Birmingham’s famous Orange Rolls [Photos]

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Orange Roll, The Club
Mrs. Jessie holding her famous Orange Rolls at The Club. Photo via Nathan Watson for Bham Now

Nearly two years ago, I woke up at a mindbogglingly early time to meet Ella Irby, the woman behind the famous sweet rolls at Bogue’s Restaurant. But those aren’t the only famous rolls in town. I traveled to The Club to meet Mrs. Jessie, a longtime baker at The Club, to learn more about their famous Orange Rolls.

The Legend of the Birmingham Orange Roll

Orange Roll, The Club
Orange Rolls at The Club. Photo via Nathan Watson for Bham Now

The history of the Orange Roll begins more than a half-century ago, when “Vestvia” referred to an estate rather than an Over the Mountain suburb. Built in the mid-1920s, Vestavia was the Roman-inspired home of former Birmingham Mayor George Ward. The primary residence—a circular home inspired by the “Temple of Vesta” in Italy—sat atop Shades Mountain, surrounded by lavish gardens, water features and the smaller Sibyl Temple.

Vestavia
This circular, Roman-inspired building was once part of George Ward’s estate. After his death, the Vestavia Hill Baptist Church temporarily used it for their services, before demolishing the building in 1971. Photo via BhamWiki

After George Ward’s death in 1940, the property eventually passed to a local developer who opened a restaurant called the Vestavia Roman Rooms inside the former home. According to BhamWiki, the restaurant served steaks & seafood for dinner, and sandwiches and soups for lunch.

However, one dish would last long after George Ward’s Vestavia estate was finally demolished in 1971—the Orange Roll.

Mrs. Ewing Steele and the Orange Rolls

Orange Roll, The Club
Melt-in-your-mouth delicious! Photo via Nathan Watson for Bham Now

As the story goes, it was at the Vestavia Roman Rooms that Birmingham baker Mrs. Ewing Steele debuted her Orange Rolls to the public. Most accounts claim Mrs. Steele learned to prepare large quantities of food while cooking for the Officers’ Club at Fort McClellan in Anniston. Afterwards, she brought her skills and recipes—including the legendary Orange Roll—to the various country clubs in Birmingham.

Although information about Mrs. Steele’s life is sparse, her legacy lives on in her published cookbooks, Secrets of Cooking and the followup More Secrets of Cooking. Many of the recipes inside are meant for personal use, but several—such as the chicken pie—are meant for large parties of 100 or more.

The Birmingham Orange Roll Lives on at The Club

Today, the Orange Roll is famously associated with The Club—and is one of the private social club’s best-kept secrets. In fact, only four people have seen the actual recipe in The Club’s 70-year history!

Two of those four people still work at The Club—Mrs. Jessie and Executive Chef James Riles. Chef Riles arrived at The Club in 2016, and quickly made it his personal mission to re-establish the original recipe, which had seen several modifications over the years.

However, Chef Riles is the first to say that the star behind the scenes is Mrs. Jessie. Since she first joined the roster at The Club in the 1980s, Mrs. Jessie has been drawn to the famous Orange Rolls.

“Mrs. Essie Johnson, who came to The Club in the 60’s, was here when I began working here in the 1980’s. When I got the job, it took a lot of knowledge and practice to successfully make the orange rolls. I learned a lot just from watching her every day. Once I got it down, it became natural and a routine for me.

I remember being so excited to start working in the bake shop at The Club—every time Mrs. Essie made them, the smell was delightful. You never forget that smell of warm sugar baking in the oven.”

Mrs. Jessie
Orange Roll, The Club
Chef Riles and Mrs. Jessie, the two brains behind The Club’s famous Orange Rolls. Photo via Nathan Watson for Bham Now

Each of the 1,000+ Orange Rolls that The Club serves fresh daily to its members and guests is made with care by Mrs. Jessie. The process starts bright and early—like, 3AM early. In order to prepare for the day, Mrs. Jessie creates a huge batch that will yield upwards of 1,000 rolls.

Orange Roll, The Club
You can almost taste that deliciousness! Photo via Nathan Watson for Bham Now

From dough to that first delicious bite, each day’s batch of Orange Rolls takes Mrs. Jessie about eight hours!

“Orange rolls were never actually on our menu. They were always just served with every meal. The rolls have always been part of the The Club experience—a tradition that everyone loved and kept coming back to enjoy!”

Mrs. Jessie

You can say that again. I look forward to my next visit to The Club, where I can enjoy a delectable Orange Roll with a new appreciation for its story.

Love the Orange Rolls at The Club? We do too! Share your favorite Orange Rolls memories with us by tagging @bhamnow on Instagram!

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Nathan Watson
Tennessee native who fell in love with Birmingham during college. Graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 2019. Passionate about Birmingham and its continued growth.
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