Tuesday, December 25, 2012

CORNBREAD DRESSING AKA STUFFING

Nothing arouses an appetite so much as the smell of cornbread “dressing,” as we southerners call it, baking on Christmas Eve. On the day that the kitchen becomes the central room in the house, memories of my childhood Christmases spent in the old Victorian home of my grandmother Nell rise to my consciousness. I know it is Christmas, not by the scent of candles and evergreens, but by the mixed aroma of turkey fat and cornbread cooking!

Myriad recipes for dressing aka stuffing fill cookbooks: bread and oyster stuffing, bread with mushrooms stuffing, giblet stuffing, wild rice stuffing, sausage stuffing, chestnut stuffing…but no recipe can surpass the one for a good southern cornbread dressing, for which I have no written recipe. The ingredients and approximate measurements for dressing passed from my Grandmother Nell to my Mother Dorothy and then to me, and I think that most southern cooks probably don’t “go by” a recipe, they just put together a dollop of this, a dash of that, crumbling and pouring, mixing and baking to produce this quintessential dish that complements a baked turkey.

My good friend Janet, who was born and bred in southeast Alabama (the heart of red dirt country), talks about that cornbread dressing, as well as other southern delicacies in her charming book entitled Road Home, which emerged a few years ago from folders she had labeled, “Things to Think About.” The last chapter in the book is entitled “The Road Home,” and is a delightful chapter about holiday food, including a few sentences about having dinner with friends at Chapel Hill one Thanksgiving and being forced to partake of Mushrooms Berkeley as the main dish, a food swimming in what she calls a “dark, brooding sauce…”

In the chapter entitled “The Road Home” Janet tells about her grandmother’s famous cornbread dressing, which she explains had to be made in two different pans – one for cornbread dressing with onions and one without onions for the children and her adult uncle. “Food from this part of the country tends not to be highly seasoned; onions were the exotic seasoning in our kitchens, and you had to admit, even if you didn’t like the taste of onions, the smell was fabulous…” All of the food from the Christmas dinner was stored on the kitchen counter, covered with the oldest tablecloth on hand, and was left unrefrigerated until supper time, but Janet relates that no one ever became sick after a holiday or a Sunday meal. And, of course, everyone always took some of the remnants home with them.

The best part of the cornbread stuffing vignette in Road Home has to do with storage of leftover food. Janet writes: “My sister, who as an adult is a fastidious housekeeper, wins the prize for the most creative ‘to go’ storage container. One holiday when she was eight years old, unbeknownst to the rest of the family, Jennie left Granny’s house with cornbread dressing, sans the onions [thank goodness], wrapped in aluminum foil and tucked way down into the toe of a knee-high sock. Unmindful of her cargo, we returned home, and my sister took the sock directly to her room with her other belongings. Weeks later, when a peculiar odor caused my mother to track down the sock, which had found its way to a resting place under Jennie’s bed, she was the only one who could unequivocally identify the sock stuffing as cornbread dressing…”

I hope you “passed a good Christmas,” as the Cajuns say, and perhaps enjoyed a scoop of cornbread dressing aka stuffing.

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