Averyell A. Kessler
This post is a highly prejudiced, opinionated, don’t move an inch view of my favorite Thanksgiving treat, corn bread dressing. I learned to make it behind the apron strings of a skilled southern cook and I won’t give it up. Calories be damned! For me, turkey is only a side dish, no matter how moist and delicious, or skillfully brined and browned to perfection. Dressing is the main attraction. Always has been. Even when I was young enough to wear a construction paper hat to the table.
First, it’s dressing, not stuffing. The term stuffing is reserved for sofa cushions, green peppers, and colorful toy animals given as prizes at the Mississippi State Fair. It is also possible to stuff oneself, especially on Thanksgiving Day. I happily step around boxed “stuffing” mixes in the grocery store, even though they promise easy, time saving ways of duplicating the real thing. If you are forced to search the net for thirteen ways to perk up stuffing mix, you’re already a goner. There is no duplication, and no one really likes to eat cardboard or croutons as hard as dice.
Next, the cornbread itself. I once received a frantic phone call from a novice cook who was tried to copy an old-time southern recipe but failed miserably. “It was dry,” she wailed. “And it didn’t taste like it was supposed to. Nobody wanted any for leftovers.”
“The cornbread,” I answered. “How did you make it.”
“I bought three boxes of cornbread mix at Kroger. But….” she sniveled.
“Stop right there, honey,” I said. “Make it yourself. Start the day before.”
“Do you have that recipe?” she asked.
“Southern Sideboards, P. 113.” The Junior League strikes again!”
Finally, the next-day rule. Be generous with leftovers but save some for yourself. A horrific event occurred in our family recently when a few outer edge relatives snuck into the kitchen, scrapped our dressing pan dry and fled with all the leftover dressing hidden under their coats. All, every tiny bit, even a few crumbs of brown crust clinging to the edges of the pan. They systematically eliminated my hopes of a cold leftover dressing the next day. The friend who pops poached eggs onto a mound of dressing was furious. The possibility of resurrecting Aunt Lou’s chicken and dressing casserole, disappeared like fog at dawn. The culprits offered a feeble excuse “we don’t cook much.” I’m planning to send them a case of canned unicorn meat for Christmas. (yes, it exists). Maybe they’ll figure out what to do with it.
For most folks, turkey is still the star of the day. It appears in Normal Rockwell’s famous painting Freedom From Want. Bob Cratchit received a huge one from a chastened Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dicken’s classic tale. And an especially lucky bird makes the evening news as he receives a presidential pardon on the White House lawn. Take a back seat, Punxsutawney Phil.
My best turkey award goes to a friend in Abbeville, La who fried it in an ancient family pot hanging from chains over an open fire. He dropped in Cornish hens also, and they were delicious.
The worst turkey award goes to a group of male friends who gathered on my patio early on a frost-tinged Thanksgiving Day to prep a smoker for a whole turkey as well as a breast. Because timing was essential, they started before sunup. I woke to the sound of clanging metal and a plethora of choice words. Soon, they were all knee deep in scotch and Bloody Marys. Yes, I fed them breakfast – a big one. However, they spent most of the day snoring in my guest room and falling off the living room sofa. The untended turkey smoked relentlessly until it was a shriveled mess resembling Freddy Kruger’s face. Once again, dressing saved the day.
A bonus award for exemplary Thanksgiving treat goes to a New Orleans native who’s Mama taught him to make oyster dressing touched by the Gods. My guess – bread is the secret. Leidenheimers probably, but I’m still trying to get it out of him. And the oysters were fresh, drained but oozing liquor.
Still, the matter of turkey looms large in a requisite Thanksgiving meal. I gave up on it long ago. Other cooks seem to have mastered the art of producing a succulent, juicy twenty-five pounder. But for me, the Butterball hotline is useless, and a turkey injector looks like an instrument of medieval torture. Martha Stewart hasn’t helped, neither has the Barefoot Contessa. Haven’t tried brining yet, but I’m not sure I want to live with a turkey ruminating in my fridge for hours.
My secret to a perfect turkey is “don’t even try.” Instead, I prefer roast duck a la Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge or quail prepared according to the directions of an experienced hunter and regular attendee of the Delta Council’s famous bird supper.* Both go well with dirty rice, seasoned with pan drippings. No matter what, dressing will save the day. Just keep a close eye on stray relatives, especially the ones wearing big coats.
*For more information about this organization and it’s wingding of an annual event, check out http://www.deltacouncil.org Very interesting.