Cornbread Dressing Will Make Thanksgiving 2020 Feel Normal

No matter what my plans end up being this year, I will be making my dressing.

Aaron Hutcherson and Cornbread Dressing
Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim / Photo by Aaron Hutcherson

The holidays will be different this year. Our series, "The One Dish," collects stories about what we're doing for Thanksgiving that will make us feel right at home.

While there’s the merriment of Christmas, the fun of dressing up in costumes for Halloween, and the jubilation from celebrating the entire month of June with the queer community, my favorite holiday of them all is Thanksgiving. I love gathering around a table—or bunching together on sofas, stools, and any available floor space—with loved ones to share food, drink, and joy.

Thanksgiving is the one holiday that I've always celebrated with my family. I've done friendsgivings in the past, either before or after the holiday, but those Thursdays in November have always been reserved for my kin in Chicago. As a child, celebrating with one's family is almost a given. Then, in college, the dorms practically shut down as everyone fled to their hometowns for the long weekend. Even as an adult hundreds of miles away, I somehow managed to always make it to my hometown to celebrate, even when I was a line cook and only able to visit for about 24 hours.

When my large family gets together, there can easily be 20 or 30 people in attendance. While "family is most important," the meal itself is just as crucial on Thanksgiving day. The usual suspects for us include turkey, gravy, macaroni and cheese, greens, dinner rolls, sweet potato pie, and, my personal favorite, dressing. And though everyone would bring something to contribute—anything from a roast leg of lamb by an uncle to cans of pop (we're from Chicago, afterall) for the less culinary inclined—the main components of the meal were the responsibility of the host because you never knew when some people would actually show up. So as hosts, that meant lots of work for my parents and me leading up to the main event.

I wouldn't mind not having to roast the turkey, and I'm OK with someone else being in charge of the vegetables, but no matter what, I will be making cornbread dressing for a taste of home.

Even before my current career, I was no stranger to helping out in the kitchen, whether for a casual weeknight dinner or big holiday. One of my favorite childhood traditions was assisting my father as he turned our kitchen into a sweet potato pie factory. And at a certain point as an adult, I started to rise with my mom at the crack of dawn to help with the turkey becauseI didn’t want her to hurt herself lifting a bird that weighed as much as a small child.

My time as a line cook shortened my patience for her lack of speed in the kitchen. I couldn’t help myself as I commandeered more and more tasks, and just last year I realized I'd mostly taken over the whole show. I'd bake the ham, roast and carve the turkey, make the macaroni and cheese, cook the green beans, and even make the gravy. However, she still had certain things she takes care of, like her sour cream pound cake, homemade dinner rolls, and the cornbread that gets turned into the all important dressing.

"What is 'dressing'?" you might be asking. An alternative to perhaps the more familiar bread stuffing, dressing for me is traditionally cornbread mixed with vegetables, seasonings, and liquid. It's the evolution of a dish called "kush" that was first cooked by enslaved Africans, which has, naturally, become a staple of Southern and African American cuisine. And so, it is requisite at my family's holiday meals.

Every Thanksgiving, our house would be full of laughter and debates that raged across the dining table. After the meal, some would migrate to the basement for a game of bid whist while enjoying something from the sweets table. Long story short, it was fun.

This year will obviously be different.

I, along with many others around the country, have been robbed of that cherished time to spend with distant relatives. Instead, I’m having text conversations with friends to figure out a plan for my first time spending the actual day without family. While part of me looks forward to finally being able to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner (my family's gatherings are typically dry affairs), I'm saddened by the idea of not getting to spend it with my 4-year-old niece or 92-year-old grandmother.

Whatever my plans end up being, I'll still be responsible for some of the cooking. I wouldn't mind not having to roast the turkey, and I'm OK with someone else being in charge of the vegetables, but no matter what, I will be making cornbread dressing for a taste of home.

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