Holidays are inextricably intertwined with food for me. Easter tastes like a plump baked ham. July 4th is hand-churned ice cream. Halloween, popcorn balls made with Amish molasses. Christmas is jam cake, rich with home-canned blackberries and drenched in stiff caramel. And Thanksgiving tastes like my Mama’s cornbread dressing.
Unlike grilled hamburgers or corn on the cob, which tastes pretty much the same no matter who prepares it, dressing is one of those subjective foods, like barbecue. A food to be argued over. A food to be smug about. And that’s what my Daddy, my brother and I were about Mama’s cornbread dressing. Smug. No matter where we ate dressing or whose we were eating, we were secure in the knowledge that Mama’s was better.
Just because someone offered us a combination of meal, sage and onion drowned in giblet gravy, it wasn’t necessarily dressing. For the real thing, it had to be made by Mama. Mama’s dressing wasn’t something that could be whipped up in minutes because a turkey needed company. To us the turkey was really just an excuse to have dressing.
I didn’t realize until I was grown that the actual preparation of the dressing was the secret to its incomparable, well… incomparable everything, taste, consistency, smell.
In the days before Thanksgiving, Mama would begin making biscuits and cornbread to freeze. Of course, her breads were also better than anybody’s, giving her dressing an initial advantage over weaker contenders. To use in dressing, she’d bake the biscuits slightly more done and little less fluffy than usual. The cornbread would be about three-quarters inches thick and deep brown. Then on Thanksgiving morning, she’d bake another pan of biscuits and another skillet of cornbread. The trick, she said, was in the way the breads were crumbled, or rather not crumbled, into the pan. They were to be broken into chunks, somewhat of a feat using frozen bread, with only part of the fresh cornbread actually pulverized. Note: If a know-it-all child did not do this part correctly, that child could not help, which made it more difficult to sneak unauthorized pre-dinner bites of the dressing.
Mama took control of the onions, nimbly chopping them into pieces big enough to see and crunch but not so large as to overwhelm any single bite of the dressing. The onions were tossed in with the bread, and some known-only-to-Mama amounts of sage, pepper and salt were sprinkled on like magic powder. The finale was the pouring of the hot turkey broth, fat removed, onto the mixture. I could actually hear the cold, dry bread moaning as it soaked up the rich liquid. More tossing. This kept the dressing from being like other cooks’ mushy, runny, stuff we found so inferior.
However, the step that set our Mama’s dressing apart was when she put it in the oven and baked it until the top was slightly crusty, but the center was still steamy and soft. Now, this dressing was suitable at every meal for several days following Thanksgiving. It was good at room temperature as an afternoon snack, warm with leftovers at supper and served cold with cranberries for breakfast. No wonder we were smug.
My most memorable Thanksgiving, though, was in 1995. By this time we all knew mama was dying of cancer. Hospice was attending her, and we suspected and were proved correct, that she would never leave the house again. No one was really in the mood for Thanksgiving. Ever practical, though, Mama decided somebody had to learn to make the dressing. So, from the chair to which she was sentenced by a paralyzing spinal metastasis, she instructed, corrected, critiqued, reminded and ordered Daddy and me into making dressing. We listened and did what she said, knowing that this would be the last chance to commit the secret of the dressing into our hearts and our memories.
When at last our maiden effort was delivered warm from the oven, Mama tasted it and pronounced it “a little greasy” (we’d skimped on the fat straining part) but not too bad. Since she’s been gone, however, daddy has perfected the dressing. In other words, it tastes just like Mama’s.
Of course, she taught him how to make biscuits and cornbread that taste just like hers, so maybe it’s not as amazing as it seems. And since Daddy makes dressing on demand (of grand kids, mostly) and whether it’s a holiday or not, I must admit that some of the mystique has gone from the dressing. But that first bite, every time, tastes like my Mama is here, but my Daddy is, so it still tastes like Thanksgiving.
Just follow the instructions above since there is no real recipe. Here’s what you will need.
- a large onion
- sage, salt and pepper
- day (or more) old home-made biscuits
- day (or more) old home-made cornbread
- de-fatted broth from turkey or a couple of cans of chicken broth
Edward Johnson, Claudia’s daddy, at age 90 cooking cornbread.