Our Stuffings, Our Selves
One Christmas Eve some years back, my husband was standing in his mother's kitchen and fussing. He came about it honestly: His mother, may she rest in peace, was a world-class fusser, and by the time she entered her early 90s, she was ready to turn the side dish duties over to her progeny. She'd tasked Douglas with making the traditional cornbread dressing for the family's large gathering, and good gravy is that a lot of pressure. (He was also making the gravy, but he can do that in his sleep.)
People aren't neutral on dressing, or stuffing, or filling, if you hail from Pennsylvania Dutch country, or whatever they happen to call the damp mass of bread (corn, sourdough, potato, or whatever comes in the bag), rice (white or wild), potatoes (also a PA Dutch thing), saltines (it's a thing), or masa harina (in the states that bump up against Mexico) that accompanies fowl on a festive occasion. A particular assemblage of starch and seasoning is, broadly speaking, hardwired into our psyches long before we have any say in what we're eating, and it gets conflated with celebration. No matter how things are going at the table, interpersonally speaking, you'd be hard-pressed not to find a moment of pleasure in a mouthful of dressing.
Or stuffing, as I called it growing up. Ours came from a cardboard tube and was jammed up in the bird because salmonella, schmalmonella. I loved it so much that when we didn't have any in the house, I'd cobble together a little single-serving snack, tearing up toast and dousing it with bouillon, butter, and Bell's poultry seasoning. It's not until I sat down for Thanksgiving at another family's table—probably a college boyfriend's—that I realized that stuffing could be anything other than gloppy seasoned bread and maybe a stray handful of onion and celery, if you felt like glamming things up.
Some of these glorious lunatics were tossing in sausage, chestnuts, pine nuts, wild rice, great mountains of sage, and they weren't even bothering to violate the turkey with it—just baking it in pans in near proximity on account of some chickenshit sense of self preservation and not wanting to spend Black Friday in the ER. It's the way at least one of their parents ate it growing up, and by God's sake, it will be thus until the sun grows cold. In an ideal world, a union of souls by marriage or cohabitation would ensure a double-stuffing celebration, but really, who has the oven space?
So yeah, I have a more than mild interest in the stuffing arts. Before writing this story, I was planning on creating a definitive infographic delineating our country's regional styles and lexicon, but unlike the overbaked, cornbread-based dressing squares I choked down at my aunt's friend's house one year, it's not so cut and dried. Of course, there are ingredients that are primarily seen in certain areas of the country, often due to availability, and linked deeply to identity. In a recent story for the New York Times, the journalist Brett Anderson wrote poignantly of the loss of a Gulf tradition—oyster dressing—due to the impact of spill cleanup and climate change on the yearly harvest. The Chicago Tribune's Sadé Carpenter explored how cornbread dressing is derived from kush, a dish brought to America by enslaved West Africans, and which allowed them to access their homeland, at least in memory.
In a Facebook thread, I asked friends to share their family's favorite dressing, and 100-plus comments later, the conversation is still going strong.
Several people from various points around Louisiana spoke rapturously of their family's shrimp and mirliton—you might know it as chayote, a kind of squash—or crawfish and cornbread dressing, which was echoed by a chef in close proximity to another part of the Gulf. Another's Kentucky mother-in-law specialized in saltine and oyster stuffing, and just a few ticks down the page, a New England friend shared his recipe for that very dish. (The oysters are canned.) Rhode Island represented with Portuguese stuffing made with Portuguese bread, linguica, and turkey neck and giblets, while another pal's annual cranberry harvest on Amagansett manifested in a fruit-studded cornbread rendition. A friend from Texas checked in with tamale-boudin stuffing, and several folks with family backgrounds that butt up against the Mediterranean cited family members with a fondness for rice dressing with ground or shredded meat, and cinnamon, allspice, or nutmeg. I may have angled—OK, begged—for an invitation. Several people in the White Castle belt have embraced the slider stuffing and yes, there's an official recipe on the website.
But many people grew up like I did, with boxed or bagged bread, stirred up with sauteed onions and celery, poultry seasoning, stock, maybe an egg or drippings to make the whole thing appropriately mushy. If anything, we're all sticking to a well-established formula. In my lust for stuffing lore, I pored over American cookbooks, starting with the first published one, 1796's American Cookery by Amelia Simmons.
To stuff and roast a Turkey, or Fowl.
One pound soft wheat bread, 3 ounces beef suet, 3 eggs, a little sweet thyme, sweet marjoram, pepper and salt, and some add a gill of wine; fill the bird therewith and sew up, hang down to a steady solid fire, basting frequently with salt and water, and roast until a steam emits from the breast, put one third of a pound of butter into the gravy, dust flour over the bird and baste with the gravy; serve up with boiled onions and cranberry-sauce, mangoes, pickles or celery.
Others omit the sweet herbs, and add parsley done with potatoes.
Boil and mash 3 pints potatoes, wet them with butter, add sweet herbs, pepper, salt, fill and roast as above.
Some 68 years later, in Pennsylvania, Maria J. Moss documented her process in A Poetical Cookbook, which she dedicated to suffering soldiers.
But man, cursed man, on turkeys preys,
And Christmas shortens all our days.
Sometimes with oysters we combine,
Sometimes assist the savory chine.
From the low peasant to the lord,
The turkey smokes on every board.
Make a stuffing of bread, salt, pepper, nutmeg, lemon-peel, a few oysters, a bit of butter, some suet, and an egg; put this into the crop, fasten up the skin, and boil the turkey in a floured cloth to make it very white. Have ready some oyster sauce made rich with butter, a little cream, and a spoonful of soy, and serve over the turkey.
Ah, poetry. I can't say I've trucked with much suet lately. (The Boston Cooking School had ditched it by 1921 anyhow: "Add one teaspoonful of salt, one-fourth a teaspoonful of pepper and one tablespoonful and one-half of poultry seasoning to three cups of cracker crumbs; mix thoroughly and add three-fourths a cup of melted butter.") I don't tend to have oyster sauce at the ready, but I'm not going to worry about it. I'm also not to get especially bent about delineating who says dressing or stuffing. It has seemingly little to do with the dish being cooked inside or outside of the bird as people often assume. And save for a few highly specific variations, regions have less to do with the recipes than relatives and family-specific traditions do.
As it turns out, my husband didn't actually have to worry that he was properly channeling his long-since-departed grandmother's method that he was trying to recreate from memory. To his great shock, his mother cracked open a 1954 copy of The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book and pointed to the recipe she'd been using for the past half-century. Furness split the difference, using both "stuffing" and "dressing," and my mother-in-law—or possibly her mother—had neatly written in her quibble with the temperature, and a note to add oil to the pan and heat it a little before adding the cornbread. It's a little bit fussy, but that's the secret ingredient that makes it ours.