Liking the Stuffing Out of Dressing


The great Thanksgiving debate.

By Joey Kennedy

This is November, so we need to prepare for the big debate. No, not whether there is going to be a Big Blue Wave on Nov. 6 or if Red has become our permanent color.

It’s Thanksgiving season, friends. The important debate is this: Dressing or stuffing?

Before we get there, though, my curious readers deserve to know a little of my background with this conflict. It is ugly.

Stuffing, we all know, is made with bread. Different stuffing makers use different breads. Dressing, however, has a base of cornbread. Really good cornbread.

And here’s where it gets ugly. My dear mother, God rest her soul, made really crappy cornbread.

Mom could cook, don’t get me wrong. She put together the best Sunday roast beef I’ve ever eaten. Her roasts were so tender, the meat melted in our mouths. She’d always serve from-scratch creamed potatoes and Le Sueur Very Young Small Sweet Peas with her roasts. That is one amazing meal, I tell you. And Mom’s meat loaves, fried chicken, and veal cutlets were to die for.

Her cornbread sucked.

And to get a good dressing, you have to have good cornbread.

I grew up hating cornbread. I didn’t blame my mother. I just thought cornbread tasted bad. So for the first third of my cornbread-aware life, until I was about 23, I avoided cornbread wherever it was offered: at friends’ houses, at restaurants, and at home when I could.

The latter was challenging. When Mom wasn’t making roast or meatloaf or fried chicken or veal cutlets—and that wasn’t so often—we’d have cornbread with beans dumped on top. Cornbread and red beans. Cornbread and navy beans. We never had cornbread and Le Sueur Very Young Small Sweet Peas, and I’m glad, or I might, even today, hate those tiny green treasures.

I also avoided the dry, yucky cornbread dressing Mom made during the holidays, and especially at Thanksgiving.

And then I met Veronica, my wife of nearly 39 years. Early in our dating relationship, I was having dinner at Veronica’s house. Her mother made cornbread. I was going to politely pass, ask for white bread, and go from there.

Veronica is a persuasive woman, though. And I was starting to love her. Like, really love her. She wanted me to try her mother’s cornbread, and I did.

My life was changed that day. Inez’s cornbread was amazing, and it wasn’t simply that I was sitting at Veronica’s parents’ dinner table giving V googly eyes. In fact, I’ve been eating cornbread ever since, and I’m happy for it. Veronica’s cornbread is as good (or better) than her mom’s. Her cornbread dressing is a delicious treat we have multiple times a year, not just at Thanksgiving.

But in kitchens around the country this time of year, the great Thanksgiving debate remains: Dressing or stuffing?

Veronica and I have many good friends. On Thanksgiving these days, we’re invited to two meals. One is at lunchtime with our Southern friends, who always have a wonderful dressing. The other is at dinner with a couple of our Yankee friends, who always have super stuffing.

I’ve read a lot of dressing-vs.-stuffing food articles. One writer argued there’s really not much difference in the two, except the stuffing is cooked in the bird’s cavity. Thus, stuffing. Get it?

But, au contraire mon ami!

Cornbread dressing and any-bread stuffing are about as close as Nome, Alaska, and Birmingham, Alabama. I enjoy my friends’ stuffing, true enough. But I love cornbread dressing almost as much as I love Veronica. We sometimes make a whole meal of it. And then have it again the next night. We’ve even had cornbread dressing with a side of buttered cornbread. I’m making up for lost time.

I’ve asked Veronica for her cornbread dressing recipe, but she’s reluctant. Not because Veronica doesn’t want to share; she says she just “eyeballs” it.

“Like many traditional foods, whatever the region,” Veronica tells me, “the recipes are handed down from earlier generations. For many cooks, an actual recipe doesn’t exist. Sure, some may be reluctant to share that ‘special family ingredient,’ but that usually isn’t the case. It’s a dish that is put together more by sight, taste, and smell than by teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups.”

Veronica did offer that “most Southern dressing is a concoction of cornbread, chicken (or turkey) stock, diced onions, and salt, pepper, poultry seasoning, and sage.” She said some people add canned cream of chicken soup and/or green bell peppers, and shredded chicken or turkey.

That sounds like recipe avoidance to me, but my stuffing-making friend is the same. There’s no recipe from him, either.

“As I cook instinctively, it varies,” says Rian Alexander, a native of Cleveland, Ohio. “Basics are bread, eggs, milk, celery, onions, stock. Spices are salt, pepper, sage.” Rian says he’s been experimenting with artisan breads lately. “Bread is always torn apart, never cut. I cook stock from giblets, turkey necks, and chicken backs. That is more experimentation.”

Okay. So what about your family? Will it be dressing or stuffing on your Thanksgiving table this year?

Really, it comes down to what you’re used to. For a time, I preferred stuffing. Then, once I learned that all cornbread isn’t the same, I can’t do without dressing.

Or those wonderful Le Sueur Very Young Small Sweet Peas.

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