Being incapacitated, I decided it would be a good time to sit down and make a list for Thanksgiving. I usually cook dinner for my Southern family every year but this time is different – the Yankees are coming! My husband’s family from New York is flying in on an airplane, not a broom (just kidding – I once said my mother-in-law flew on a broom and my son who was six at the time ask her if he could see it – family joke now). I’ve had Thanksgiving dinner with them and their food is different, good, but different. Well, this time they’ll get a true Southern Thanksgiving dinner. Surprise! No stuffing!
Aside from the turkey (any fool with an oven can bake a turkey, just ask Butterball), the centerpiece of a Southern Thanksgiving is the cornbread dressing. Every family south of the Mason-Dixon line has its own recipe for this culinary delight. One friend adds so much sage the dressing is green while another boils her dressing (This I would have to see – it conjures images of dropping the dressing like doughnuts into boiling water). Flavor ingredients vary by taste but there is one constant – cornbread. Southerners do like their cornbread.
The basic element, cornbread, is a staple for every Southern diet. You eat peas and cornbread or green beans and cornbread or simply cornbread in milk (yes, we do crumble cornbread into milk and eat it – don’t laugh, it’s good). I make my Thanksgiving cornbread with a lot more eggs and milk, stirring the concoction until it is a creamy yellow (from the eggs, not the meal). High cholesterol is part of the fun. I cook it a large iron skillet which I inherited from my grandmother (these skillets are worth their weight in gold in the South – none of the new ones can be seasoned like the ones that have had so much grease in them for years). I end up with a huge round pone of cornbread, the start of the dressing.
My earliest memory of Thanksgiving morning is of my grandmother, “Bigmama,” standing in the kitchen crumbling cornbread into a large bowl. She never would let us kids help saying there was no tellin’ what would end up in there if she did. We wanted to help. It looked like fun but then kids are stupid. I spent a few years crumbling the bread until I decided my hands could get stuck permanently in the claw position from handling so much cornbread. So, I dragged out the food processor and crammed chunks of cornbread into it. Viola’ – cornbread powder. My recipe also calls for slices of white bread that goes into the processor too. The beginning of the mixture is prepared.
I have a huge metal mixing bowl (by huge, I would estimate it can hold a gallon of water) that I use to mix the dressing in. It is never brought out of the cabinet except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. In goes the cornbread and white bread, nicely crumbled, and the process begins. I cook the onions and celery, also nicely chopped by the food processor, in turkey broth. This mixture goes over the bread, along with six eggs, a large can of cream of chicken soup, a can of evaporated milk (Why you can’t just use plain milk is a mystery to me – it’s my great-grandmother’s recipe – why question greatness?), and more broth until it has the right consistency, a little more watery than oatmeal. I don’t use sage or poultry seasoning because no one in my family (especially the cook) likes it. Out comes Bigmama’s Corning Ware dish (another huge item) and I pour the mixture in it to set. I never cook it right away. It needs time to breathe, kinda like wine. After about thirty minutes of breathing, the dressing goes into a 325-degree oven for fifteen minutes then temperature is upped to 350. It cooks until it becomes firm to the touch (I am constantly touching it so as not to over cook it).
Then the fretting begins. Did I do it right? Will it be dry? Will it be too moist, too watery? I feel like Mrs. Bob Cratchit worrying over the pudding. Until…everyone proclaims it perfect, not too dry and not too moist – just right.
I suppose my Yankee family will expect stuffing. To be honest, I have no clue about how to stuff enough bread up a turkey’s a…um, rear end to feed fourteen people. Besides, I don’t think there’s any cornbread in stuffing and Southerners do like their cornbread.
What is the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving dinner? Do you make stuffing (and please tell me how you get it in the turkey) or dressing? What other dishes does your family expect with the meal? Share your recipes. I’m especially interested in Yankee recipes. I want them to feel welcomed, at least for dinner… I just won’t give up my cornbread though. After all, Southerners do like their cornbread.