They’re the secret to salvation…and your best beach sandwiches.

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My love affair with King's Hawaiian rolls began at church. I don't know why, but sometime during my childhood, Bethel United Methodist swapped the packing-peanut-flavored communion wafers for a King's Hawaiian loaf. Maybe someone on the altar guild developed tastebuds, or our pastor decided it might bring more people to Jesus. Whatever the reason, paired with Welch's grape juice, King's Hawaiian bread made for one heck of a sacrament. Salvation, I learned, was sweet.

Even though they weren't made in the South until 2010, when the Hilo, Hawaii-based bakery opened a production facility in Oakwood, Georgia, the Portuguese-inspired King's Hawaiian Original Sweet Rolls have for years been a staple of my life, and, it seems, the Southern food canon in general.

Stuffed with warm ham and oozing melted cheese and sprinkled in poppy seeds, the Hawaiian sweet roll is ever-present at Southern gatherings for all seasons of life, from baptisms to funerals. In this part of the world, our earthly comings and goings are commemorated with a red plastic-shrouded tray of fluffy, melts-in-your-mouth bread.

Ham-And-Cheese Sliders
Credit: Photography and Styling: Karen Rankin

But just as they mark grand occasions, Hawaiian sweet rolls are present for the ordinary times too, like weekday lunches and summer picnics on the beach, when the special-occasion warm ham and melted cheese are replaced by cold cuts and mayo. Slice halfway through a package of the stuck-together rolls and you can assemble twelve slider-sized sandwiches at once; slide your mega sandwich back into its red plastic, and it's ready for the cooler, no extra Ziploc bags required.

So why do we love King's Hawaiian rolls—a food that's decidedly un-Southern in its origins—so very much? Maybe it's because they're a palate-pleaser, winning over even the smallest, pickiest eaters at the neighborhood potluck. Or perhaps it's because they're practical for feeding a crowd on the go. Or maybe, just maybe, it's because they can make even the simplest meal feel a little more sacred.