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Stuff or Dress!

November 1, 2005

Stuffings and dressings seem to have geographical dividing lines, and can lead to much confusion and many Thanksgiving debates—at least in my family.

In the South, we started out making stuffings like they did in New England and Virginia, because we used their cookbooks and recipes, which were frequently adapted from England. (The English stuffing spoon has become a Charleston rice spoon, as rice dressings had a fleeting moment in time, but we loved the spoon.)

As time went on we learned that stuffing should be removed from a turkey immediately because it takes so long to cool down and may make people ill when at tepid temperatures. It also became self-evident that an unstuffed turkey would cook much more quickly than a stuffed one. In a hot climate, two or three hours of extra cooking time makes a big difference in the comfort of the cook.

Soon, cooks decided to start putting the stuffing in a dish alongside the turkey – maybe even in the same pan, or under the turkey. Because of this, people started calling it “dressing,” because it “dressed” the turkey and was baked in a separate dish. But since it was really stuffing in a baking dish, some people (like my favorite former mother in law) called it stuffing even if it was dressing.

There are many glories in making dressing. Several different kinds can be made, to suit a household divided between cornbread dressing and bread dressing, or pecans or peanuts. Many dressings may be made in advance and frozen, defrosted and reheated, with no extraordinary health concerns (other than the normal ones for dishes containing eggs or meat.) Dressings may use commercial stock, so don’t need to use up any of the juices of the turkeys. They may also be cooked in a rice cooker, using the stock from the turkey (or chicken stock) to replace the water. This dressing remains particularly moist. Baked dressings have more flavor from the caramelization that ensues after the aluminum foil is removed.

There is rather an important point of controversy, particularly in the South, and that is the question of cornbread dressing versus white bread dressing. Southerners usually prefer cornbread dressing, with the visions of their childhood Thanksgivings dancing in their heads. But non-Southerners tend not to like cornbread dressing. My Florida-born friend Beverly, who always brought her own dressing to my Thanksgiving dinners, insisted hers was better because it had big hunks of bread in it, NOT cornbread.

My mother loved sage in her dressing. I hated the musty dried herb that she kept from year to year and tasted like dust. I loved thyme and marjoram, and, with fresh herbs growing all year, loved experimenting with them, so I use them instead of the sage. I have one child that won’t eat oysters, and one that won’t eat chestnuts, both of which are popular in various parts of the country. My daughter loves fruit in every course, and so I started making an apple dressing. And, truth be told, I love experimenting with new dressings, particularly after someone serves me one, like Stuart Woods with his pine nut dressing.
The upshot of pleasing my family? I make up to six dressings on any Thanksgiving, to keep everyone happy.

It is important for every cook to remember to keep quiet about what is going on in the kitchen. What goes on in the kitchen is private. Stuffing is not worth going to the mat for. But back to vocabulary. If someone insists on stuffing, rather than dressing, just say “yes, dear,” and steam the dressing or bake it by the side or under the turkey and then scoop it out into your grandmother’s best gold-rimmed bowl. Just make it taste wonderful and no one will care. They’ll be too busy eating to say anything.

Cookbooks
Layered, fluffy, feathery, silky, soft, and velvety biscuits all come together in Southern Biscuits, a book of recipes and baking secrets for every biscuit imaginable.
The magical combination of shrimp and grits, whether for pre-dawn breakfast on a shrimp boat or as an entrée in the finest New York restaurant can be deliriously wonderful.
A beautiful book, winner of the James Beard Award for Entertaining, that will help the novice and the experienced alike.
The best of traditional Southern cooking, as well as innovative, new cuisine.
This book will be a keepsake for anyone with Southern roots, and a practical book for those who like to cook! A winner of the 1994 James Beard Award.
Master index to all of Nathalie's cookbooks

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