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Thursday, November 22, 2007

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Turkey by Birth, Dressing
by the Grace of God

My six year old's suggested Thanksgiving Menu. To the far left are colon marks, behind which are the names of the family members whose personal preferences he lists as follows:

For himself: Cooclit Pie, Cooclit Milk, Moore Cooclit Things
For his little brother: Botll of Milk (editor's note: I don't want to talk about it)
Mom:Trcey with Stofing
For little brother:Sanwich and Chips
For himself: Ritz
For little brother: Rice Kirspies

I don't know where everyone else was during his survey. My response was borne of wistful thinking. Turkey with a savory bread stuffing, as accompanied the roasted birds of my northeastern youth, is considered blasphemous, if not out-and-out traitorous, here in the South. Cornbread dressing, baked in a separate pan, is what the good lord intended for fowl. It says so in Leviticus. AND Southern Living magazine. Ask Belinda, if you don't believe me.

Every southern family has its own heirloom recipe for dressing. My husband's came down his maternal line, and it is unique from any other I'd ever heard of, until today, when Laurie and I were comparing notes and realized we are closely related by dressings. Which is awesome, because ever since I dined and wined with the sk-rt girls in Chicago this summer, I've had a secret fantasy in which we are all sister-wives.

Laurie and her people are in North Carolina. I recently read that human migration can be tracked by DNA mutation. The farther and longer a particular tribe travels, the more mutations are added to the original code. I think this could just as easily be applied to cornbread dressing. We don't know for sure when or why Patrick's kin started heading westward from the Virginias & Carolinas. But now we know that somewhere along the way somebody added eggs. Call it manifest destiny.

In recent years, Patrick has taken it upon himself to carry tradition forward. He got started yesterday evening. My contribution was to make broth and bake up a batch of cornbread in the cast iron skillet I took from my mother-in-law's kitchen after she died. She was a wonderful woman, a true steel magnolia. My children never knew her, but to their cousins and older brother, she was "Honey". And so it says on her headstone.

With my pies out of the oven, and my part in the dressing-making done, I stepped aside and left him to it. This year, he decided to bring our eight-year-old in on the action. I heard him reading aloud to our son the steps written in his mother's lovely hand, telling stories about Thanksgivings past, and then explaining the difference between cornbread dressing and bread stuffing. True religion.

"You were born in the South, son. Don't ever forget that." He said it loud enough to be sure I could hear, and when I looked up, I caught the teasing gleam in his eyes, daring me to make something of it. But I also caught the pride and joy that was being kindled in the kitchen amid the egg cracking and cornbread crumbling. Patrick's parents died within several years of each other. Their home was sold. The extended family drifted into diaspora. Unless you count photographs, a couple of pieces of furniture, there's nothing tangible at all left to connect Patrick or our children to his parents, to their history.

Until we make cornbread dressing.

Here is Millie's recipe. Her own mother made it with turkey meat, which Laurie says is how it's done in her home, but Millie made it with chicken. If you are familiar with a version like this, I'd love to hear it.

Cornbread Dressing

(you need 2 iron skillets of cornbread already baked)*

Simmer one cut up or whole chicken in salted water for broth. Strain broth and skin and debone chicken. Add 1 stick butter to hot broth.

1 small onion
1 celery (1 cup, chopped)

Have broth hot. Break up hot corn bread, add about 4-6 cups broth and mix well in a large pot or bowl. add onion and celery mixture, and 1&1/2 tsp poultry seasoning - salt if needed by taste. Stir in 1 dozen raw eggs and deboned & skinned chicken. Toast up to 8 slices bread extra dry and break up into mixture. The mixture should be slightly soupy. If out of broth, boil water and add. Bake in two 9 X 13 dishes or pans at 400 for one to one and a half hours until set.

*this goes without saying for southerners, but others need to know that this means unsweetened cornbread. I make mine with stoneground cornmeal and it works beautifully in this recipe.

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Blogger Belinda said...

But not TOTALLY unsweetened, right? I mean, there was a tablespoon or two of sugar in that cornbread, right? Our favored recipe for "eatin" cornbread has tons of sugar, but not the recipe used for dressing.

I do know people who stuff the bird. Really. But the biggest reason we don't is because it doesn't cook well in there, and can actually be a food-safety hazard.

11:55 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

in P's family it was totally unsweetened. I was always
told that was a yankee thing to add sugar. BUT YOU, you can vindicate me! The recipe I use, and we both love, is just olive oil, stoneground cornmeal, buttermilk, salt and soda. the olive oil is probably not traditional, huh?

11:59 PM  
Blogger jenB said...

a dozen eggs? this is corn bread pudding.

12:24 AM  
Blogger Kyran said...

or death by saturated fat....dig the STICK of butter.

12:26 AM  
Blogger Belinda said...

I dunno, I use olive oil in everything unless the taste of it would detract from the dish, or it would smoke ( on the stovetop). The cornbread recipe that Alex prefers is so sweet it walks a fine line with dessert--even has a cake-like crumb. But OH, the goodness. Baked in a preheated iron skillet--batter poured over melted butter.

Everything I used for this year's dressing is here:

The one you posted looks very close to my grandmother's, though a dozen seems like a LOT of eggs! When I poured mine into the baking pans, it was fluid and smooth, but not soupy.

12:28 AM  
Blogger Belinda said...

And ours had a stick of butter IN the cornbread, AND a stick of butter to sautee' the veggies. But it also made about 24 servings, so I figure that's less than a tablespoon of butter per person, right?

12:30 AM  
Blogger Kyran said...


Unless you have three helpings.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Susanne said...

I moved from Texas to Indiana recently, bringing my 99-year-old grandmother's cornbread dressing with me. It meant a lot to me yesterday to be making it and know my sister was making the same thing in Los Angeles and I thought about how my grandmothers before me probably never thought the dressing they cooked on the farm in Texas would be made in places so far away.

I put a couple of teaspoons of sugar in my cornbread, but my mother doesn't. Our dressing calls for making cornbread and biscuits 3 days before Thanksgiving so it can all get stale and then we crumble all that up and add raw egg--just a few--chopped boiled eggs, and onion and celery that's been sauteed in butter until it's soft. And then we add broth until it's soupy and bake.

And since we're on the subject of Thanksgiving, I'll take the opportunity to say to Kyran, I discovered your blog recently and have to tell you I'm very thankful for it. You often say what I would like to, but often don't have the words. So thank you for that.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Kirsten Michelle said...

i loved this little dialogue of comments, almost as much as i did this heartfelt post.
i'm with your 6 year old...the moore cooclit things the better...hee,hee ;-)

8:28 AM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Thanks, Susanne. the image of your grandmother's dressing recipe spanning the country gave ME goosebumps. I am fascinated by the things that are handed through the matriarchal line. So often the names are lost, but so much persists and is kept alive, by daughters and daughters-in-law.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Hannah said...

As a northeasterner like yourself, Kyran, I am a little horrified at the cornbread dressing. I can't even picture what it would look like. "Soupy"?

I suppose bread stuffing baked right in the bird with yummy sage and mushrooms would gross out your neighbours pretty bad.

One common element - butter. And lots of it. You know you're onto something when the recipe measures butter in sticks, not teaspoons.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Meg said...

My dad, a yankee by birth but a southerner when it comes to his food (despite the fact he never lived south of new jersey) make a cornbread dressing that sounded an awful lot like this one--but he uses sausage instead of turkey--something that can't be traditional--perhaps its a little bit of a philadelphia twist...

10:38 AM  
Blogger Erika said...

I love how food gets people talking. How to increase your blog participation or what!

11:57 AM  
Blogger Deb said...

Florida Panhandle reporting in: say NO to the sugar. Southern recipes are greatly influences by availability. Only someone who has overactive hens could use that many eggs. The soupiness depends on how poor you are that year and how far it needs to s-t-r-e-t-c-h to feed your kin, but that only changes how long you'll have to cook it. Mmm, it is what northerners would call a baked pudding, and covered with a cream gravy, few things are as comforting. MMMMMMmmmmm

1:47 PM  
Blogger Belinda said...

Deb is right--the origins of Southern cooking is very much about using what you've got and not wasting anything. There is a marked difference in the recipes that came down from my paternal depression-era sharecropper grandmother and my maternal middle-class grandmother. Granny Hankins cooked EVERYTHING. Chit'lin's (chitterlings), cracklin' bread, salt-back, etc. She also canned, to a point that in later years, the family would beg her to stop putting things up when she already had so much jarred and stored. While I couldn't eat much of the food she cooked when I was young (cracklin' bread is way nasty), I really value the experience that went into shaping her traditions. I wish I'd learned, from her, about putting up preserves and jelly, knitting, and crocheting, before that treasure-trove of knowledge was gone with her.

Grandmom (my mom's mom) came from a more comfortable place, financially speaking--definitely not wealthy, but there was always plenty. So she had more discretion to use the ingredients wanted to in the food she made, and it was a richer, more genteel tradition of cooking. She did lots of baking, made lots of breads, and had a way with meats and poultry.

I can remember being shocked to learn from my dad that his family only had meat or poultry once a week, if that, growing up. He said of Army basic training that it was the first time in his life that he ever got to eat as much as he wanted, and had meat at every meal.

And Hannah--bread stuffing is great! I think cornbread dressing comes from the tradition of serving a LOT of people on as little as possible. Also, I think dressing plays a bigger role down here, with the reason having roots in the same tradition of making more with less. Fill people up on cornmeal, they won't require as much turkey! ;-)

The recipe I used this year for dressing is from an old issue of Southern Living, and included a variation that DID add sausage...Andouille, of course. ;-)

Sorry to hijack here, Kyran--I would love to post about this on my own blog, if I could figure out a way to keep my dad's family from finding out that I disparaged cracklin' bread and chitlin' gravy. *shudder*

2:23 PM  
Blogger SUEB0B said...

I guess I am a yankee, because that stuffing sounds dang weird to me. Cornbread? Chicken?? What??

Of course, I make artichoke/parmesan/sourdough stuffing, so you KNOW I have to be a California weirdo.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Susanne said...

Hannah, it's "soupy" before it goes in the oven, but after it's baked it ends up like really moist stuffing. If you don't make it soupy enough it will be very dry after it's baked.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...

I have to admit, I'm curious to try it now. You guys do make it sound appealing. :)

6:48 AM  
Blogger cce said...

Can't say that I know cornbread stuffing but I did marry into a Southern family that insists stuffing is made with oysters and is called dressing. I can't stomach the stuff being a good old New Englander who prefers cubed white bread and pork sausage and diced apples with her bird.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Loralee Choate said...

I find it so beyond weird that my mother was born and raised in the south and yet I, her western born child is the one that puts cornbread in the dressing!

9:23 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Here is a little tip learned the hard way about the Dressing.

After it's been in the oven for about 40 minutes or so and the top starts to brown, cover it lightly with tinfoil so it doesn't dry out.

The story behind that recipe is that it was all in my Grandmothers head and never written down. No one else could make it.

Before Grandma died, my mom went over while she was making it and grabbed everything out of Grandma's hand, measured it and wrote it down before it got tossed into the bowl.

10:01 PM  
Blogger littlepurplecow said...

What ever happened to the stuffing of the turkey with the dressing? The best dressing/stuffing I've ever had came straight out of the bird years ago. Alas, I'll stick to my assignment for sweet potato casserole.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:43 AM  
Blogger Geoff Meeker said...

New for 2008: And I'll bet there wasn't a bit of savoury to be seen! It does sound good though. Is there any reason why they don't bake it inside of the bird?

5:05 PM  
Blogger bluebird of paradise said...

Just to weigh in on the the great stuffing debate, cornbread stuffing (pudding ) sounds ghastly. I grew up in New Brunswick (Canada),where we made a potatoe stuffing, It was made with mashed potatoes,onions,raw egg and sage (salt and pepper to taste). When I married a Newfoundlander whose mother made bread dressing, it became a dispute as to which stuffing we would use.The compromise was one kind in each end.But over the years the bread dressing won out.
Having said all that I really like cooclit too!

7:23 AM  
Blogger Heffernhyphen said...

A few years back, my husband seized the opporunity to capture the creation of his mama's oyster dressing for posterity. With camcorder in hand, they chatted as she chopped.

I'm still not sure which he was really after, the nuances of recipe and technique, or of the woman behind them.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Lynn@ The Vintage Nest said...

Hi, Found you through twitter. It took me years to perfect my Mom's southern cornbread dressing. After she quit cooking the Thanksgiving Feast and it was passed on to me, I would make the dressing using a sweet cornbread..NOT...bad, bad, bad. Finally I had her stand by me while I was making the dressing so I could write everything down word for word. The cornbread (white corn meal) has to made about a week ahead of time to give it time to get stale along with toasted white bread. Hard boiled eggs, sauteed celery and onions, the giblets from the turkey, the broth from the baked turkey all is what makes it so delicious. Great debate you posted. :)

9:15 AM  
Blogger Amy B. said...

Still not quite enough butter...

I use about a stick and a half. The remaining half is cut into pats and placed on top. Along with Patrick's tin-foil trick, those extra pats on top go a long way towards keeping it moist and giving the top a lovely finish.

I appreciate his teaching the boys how to cook "Southern." Many of my family's prized recipes have been passed down through the men, not the women, which I've always found fascinating. And I love that my boys are learning English recipes from their dad. There's something pretty special about dudes bonding over food, I think.

Now you just need to send the boys round to mine one weekend so I can teach them the technique behind a good roux. From there, we'll master big pots of gumbo and jambalaya and etoufee.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Sheryl (papernapkin) said...

Loving this conversation as much as the post. My parents are from the mid-west (MO and OK) so we had both cornbread stuffing and oyster stuffing. Only we call it dressing.

10:30 AM  

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