I estimate, conservatively, that I have prepared about seventy-five turkey dinners over the years. One of the most important parts of a turkey dinner, in my opinion, is the dressing (or stuffing as some call it). So, on Thanksgiving eve, when you may be thinking about your own dinner preparations for tomorrow, I thought I would share this little piece about “dressing”.
Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving!
It was a simple recipe that my Mom used, taught to her by her mother, passed down to me and eventually to my own daughter. We’re purists in my family, shying away from changing the tried and true recipe. No sausage meat or cornmeal for us. In my family it’s called dressing, not stuffing, it’s made with bread, mixed by hand and cooked inside of the turkey.
Dressing is just as good the first day as the third day, just as good cold as hot, perfect on sandwiches, or by itself. I’ve learned that everyone doesn’t share my fondness for dressing, and secretly I’ve always been pleased when someone at my table has confessed their dislike for it, knowing that there will be more for me to enjoy later.
Our recipe was, and still is, simple: dried bread crumbs, diced onion, melted butter, dried sage, salt, poultry seasoning, and enough boiling water to make it hold together. There is no written recipe and no measuring spoons necessary, it is a dish that one learns to make by experience.
Mom always mixed the dressing in a large, chipped, white enamel bowl. It was the only one large enough, as she always made more than would fit into the turkey, requiring that a little tinfoil package be created to cook the excess.
There was much to consider when making dressing and this involved advance preparation and consideration. First and foremost, were the breadcrumbs. Reflecting upon the size of the turkey, Mom would purchase a bag, or bags of breadcrumbs making sure that they were from white bread only, and of a uniform size. Of equal importance was the selection of The Onion, and considerable time and attention went into selecting one of the right size and type. I’ve never been quite sure why, but we always bought a special large white onion to use for the dressing; none of our standard yellow onions were of the quality required for the perfect dressing.
Making the dressing was always done early in the day. The Onion would be chopped and sautéed slowly in a saucepan of butter. While The Onion cooked, Mom would shake salt, sage and poultry seasoning over the crumbs and combine them with her hands. Then, when The Onion was cooked just right, it was added to the breadcrumbs and the hand mixing continued.
Water from the kettle was poured into the saucepan, and this little saucepan was used to add water to the dressing little by little. Mom always considered consider the size of the turkey and the likelihood of that bird being fatty or dry, when mixing the dressing and deciding upon the quantity of water to add. We both knew that a soggy dressing could cast a shadow over the entire meal.
Once the dressing was mixed, and the consistency just right we would begin to taste. I always felt very important when we got to this part and she would ask for my opinion. Perhaps this is the reason that my fondness for dressing extends beyond the enjoyment of the just the flavor, and enters the realm of the nostalgic.
Mom had particular way of tasting the dressing that involved a kind of tsking, similar to how a sommelier would taste a fine wine.
“What do you think?” she would ask as we tasted, both tsking to extract the full flavor.
“Needs more salt”, I would reply or “needs more sage”, not really knowing what, if anything, was needed, but so delighted that she asked my opinion.
No matter what I recommended, she would agree and add a bit more of the missing ingredient. She would continue mixing, and we would continue tasting until we both agreed that it was just right.
I remember one time when we were having turkey dinner at my Grandma’s house. My grandma wasn’t one of those child-friendly, cookie-baking grandmas that you read about in story books. My grandma had lived a hard and tiring life, and had no patience for the whimsy of children. She actually scolded me when I reached into the bowl to pinch a sample of dressing, and I recall telling my Mom later that I didn’t think that Grandma liked me too much.
When my own daughter was old enough, we continued the ritual of dressing making and tasting together. Over the years I had learned when more salt or sage was really called for, but I wanted to include my daughter in the dressing-making experience that I had shared with my Mom. Sadly, there were too few occasions when I had the pleasure of both my mother and daughter’s presence when preparing the dressing, as Mom passed away when my daughter was barely school age.
This year, my husband and I will spend a quiet holiday at home. As always, when I am in the kitchen chopping onion and preparing the dressing I’ll remember years gone by and time spent in the kitchen with my Mom. Any tears that fall may be caused by scent of the onion, but will likely also be tinged with a bit of longing and nostalgia.
As I combine the ingredients and take the first taste, I’m sure that I will hear the voice of my Mom asking “what do you think?”. And If I listen hard enough, I’ll bet that I will also hear my daughter suggesting “just a little more salt”.