Dressing: Smooth vs. Chunky

Major ingredient in dressing
Dressing, served with turkey or chicken, is an emotional subject in the South.  I have known people who wanted it to have the consistency of mush and won’t eat it if they can perceive the presence of celery or onions in the texture.

My family is a chunky dressing family.  I don’t have Mother’s recipe because she didn’t use one, but I do remember how she made the dressing for Thanksgiving dinner and how tasty it was.

Step one was to make a pan of cornbread, and step two to make a pan of biscuits.  She boiled a couple of eggs, chopped celery and onions, and crumbled the cornbread and biscuits together in a huge bowl.  Then she added the eggs, celery, and onions to the bread mixture, following with poultry seasoning, salt and pepper, and just enough broth to make it all stick together.  She tasted it to make sure the seasonings were at the right level.  Then she spread it in a large pan and baked it in the oven until it was warm through and browned.

While the dressing was browning Mother made giblet gravy.  She had boiled the turkey neck and giblets to make the base for the gravy.  Then she chopped the giblets, adding them back to the broth with what little meat came off the turkey neck.  The gravy also had chopped boiled eggs, poultry seasoning, salt and pepper, and sometimes a little flour to thicken it if I’m remembering right.

For me the turkey was definitely an afterthought.  At Thanksgiving dinner I’d fill my plate with dressing smothered in gravy, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole, fresh cranberry relish, and a small slice of turkey.  Yum!  It’s all about the sides.  The dressing was even more of a treat because Mother was convinced it would go bad quickly, so we only got to have leftovers of it the next day.

Occasionally Mother would make a smaller batch of dressing to go with a roasted chicken.  It was a lot of trouble because of the initial baking involved before construction of the dressing began, but it sure was good!

Holiday Cooking Disasters, or Almost

I’m always nervous when it’s time to cook a big holiday meal, or even to contribute toward a group effort at one.  I spent many years not cooking for big events, and I still happily go to my sister’s house or a friend’s house for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter or any other big foodie holiday.

I have finally learned to cook that turkey and bake that ham.  But I’m scarred by previous experiences.  The first time I roasted a turkey, for a Christmas party some years ago, I used a cooking bag (highly recommended).  I did not stuff it, because my family believes in dressing, baked outside the turkey, instead of stuffing, baked inside the turkey, so that’s what I do.  The turkey came out beautifully golden brown, with a moist breast and nicely done drumsticks.  Then I went to carve it, and found the plastic bag in the cavity with the giblets and neck in it.  Woops!  I didn’t say a word, just carved away.

Hams are capable of error as well, even pre-cooked ones that you just have to warm in the oven for a few hours.  I discovered that when I baked a ham–years ago, I swear–for the residents’ dinner at my local YMCA.  I had peeled off the layer of thin cellophane or plastic the meat packer encases the ham with before I put it in the oven.  How was I to know there was a second coat, a red one to match the skin?  Fortunately I figured this out when the ham began to get warm and emit an unusual odor.

Then there was the year I dropped a giant pot of sweet potatoes (already sweetened and spiced, of course) in the sink.  That one broke my heart.  All that work down the drain!  And I burned my hand, which is what made me drop it in the first place.

Fortunately, making mistakes is a great, if painful, way to learn.  I can bake a lovely ham now, or roast a fine turkey.  Holidays are safe at my house, I promise.  And thank goodness someone else is cooking this year!