Despite its reputation, Thanksgiving dinner is not a one-size-fits-all meal, a table set in brown from coast to coast. America is too vast, too inventive and too flush with immigrants from around the globe to subscribe to a single, unified vision of the holiday feast.
The evidence is right on your table: You could argue that no other Thanksgiving staple better reflects the nation's diversity than the side dish known as stuffing. Variations abound, and they venture well beyond the choice of breads — white, corn or Pepperidge Farm — and even beyond such decisions as whether to add oysters or giblets. Americans can't even agree on a name or preparation: Some call it stuffing and bake it inside the turkey (except when they don't). Others call it dressing and bake it in a casserole (except when they don't).
Then there are those who call it filling, as in " potato filling ," a Thanksgiving requirement for just about everyone in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Sally Churgai grew up on a small farm in Howard County, Md., but when she married Jim Churgai in 1972, she was introduced to potato filling via her husband's maternal family. They're Pennsylvania Dutch, the often-misleading term for the German immigrants who started arriving in the state in the late 18th century, their diet rich in potatoes. Pennsylvania Dutch stuffing naturally includes spuds, often mixed with bread, butter, celery and eggs for a hearty, if plain, side.
"I thought it was a little bland," Churgai remembers about her first taste. But over time, and with a little help from added seasonings and herbs, potato filling became a staple of Churgai's own Thanksgiving feast, even after she and her husband ended their marriage of more than 20 years.
"Without it, there was no Thanksgiving," Churgai says from her home in Pottstown, Pa. "It's as important as the turkey."
Few stuffings/dressings are as identifiable with a region and culture as potato filling is with the Pennsylvania Dutch. But regional stuffings do exist, even if family migrations, food media and other factors have conspired to erase the boundaries that once limited these dishes to certain geographic areas. In New England, cooks rely on Bell's Seasoning to flavor their stuffing. In Minnesota, they prepare a stuffing with wild rice, the aquatic grass that grows abundantly in the state. And in New Mexico, they make a corn bread stuffing with Hatch chiles.
Maybe it would be more accurate to say that cooks in these regions sometimes make these stuffings. It's almost impossible to generalize about stuffing anymore.
In October, I polled friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter to find the answers to two basic questions: Where did you grow up, and what kind of stuffing was on your Thanksgiving table? More than 150 people responded — hardly the sample size pollsters want when surveying the United States, but the results, plotted on Google Maps, revealed a few regional and cultural trends.
Some were obvious: Cajun-style dressings in Louisiana and Texas, and Italian-style stuffings in New York and New Jersey, where one Newark family has enjoyed a Thanksgiving stuffing made with corn bread, hot and sweet Italian sausages and Parmesan. But there were also vestiges of once-proud Thanksgiving traditions, like the chestnut stuffings that used to grace holiday tables across the eastern states before a fungus nearly wiped out the American chestnut tree in the early 20th century. You can still find families from Connecticut to North Carolina clinging to their chestnut stuffing, thanks to farmers growing trees now resistant to the chestnut blight that was accidentally introduced from Japan.
"I do distinctly remember my grandfather getting aggravated at trying to handle the hot chestnuts," recalled Francine Cohen in a Facebook remembrance of the stuffings of her Mid-Atlantic youth. "We fondly referred to the whole process of making stuffing as the 'annual yelling at the chestnuts.' "
But other stuffings and dressings have migrated far from the regions associated with them. Corn-bread-based stuffings are no longer limited to the South, where the preferred term is "dressing," a fact substantiated by Google Correlate, which shows that far more Southern states use the search term "Thanksgiving dressing recipe." People told me that their families made corn bread stuffing in Missouri, Washington state and Pennsylvania.
Likewise, oyster stuffing can be found in homes far from such major bodies of water as the Gulf of Mexico or the Chesapeake Bay. You'll find it in Michigan and Indiana, states not known for their bivalve aquaculture. Oyster stuffing in the Midwest may be just another sign of America's prowess at moving highly perishable, and potentially dangerous, products across great distances. But there's something else at play here, too.
Michael Stern, one-half of the Roadfood duo that has roamed the United States for decades in search of local specialties, equates the collapsing boundaries around the regional stuffings with the blurred lines in American barbecue. The wealth of regional recipes at our fingertips — on personal blogs, online magazines, Pinterest, YouTube videos, etc. — has made Americans "more aware and interested in what people are cooking in other parts of the country," he says.
At the same time, Stern doesn't view this streak of Thanksgiving experimentalism as the death of regional stuffings. He says it's more of an expansion.
"There might be an alternative [stuffing] for the more adventurous, but God forbid if you serve only the alternative," Stern says. "It's important for people to recognize their traditions. People don't want to throw away what they've always done in the past."
Perhaps more than any other dish, stuffing underscores Thanksgiving's complicated relationship with tradition. As children, we were often told that the holiday's central feast — a bronzed turkey with all the trimmings — could trace its origins back to 1621, when colonists and Wampanoag people first gathered around the table. Only later did we learn that the autumnal meal was largely cobbled together and promoted by other folks, including a 19th-century writer and editor who pushed to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.
Bread stuffing probably never appeared at the "first Thanksgiving," though cooks at the time probably stuffed fowl with nuts, oats, onions and herbs. More than 200 years later, in 1829, New England author and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child published "The Frugal Housewife," one of the first American cookbooks to target households without servants. In her section on turkey, Child suggested a stuffing of either pounded crackers or crumbled bread, with salt pork and sage (or sweet marjoram), perhaps bound with an egg to make the dish easier to cut.
"But [it] is not worth while when eggs are dear," Child noted.
Child's approach, emphasizing practicality and flexibility, has basically served as a template for all stuffings since. Stuffings based on local ingredients. Stuffings based on ingredients familiar to immigrants looking to assimilate into American culture. (Think Laotian sticky rice stuffing with chestnuts or Greek gemista stuffing with rice and giblets.)
"I talked to some Asian American friends and asked them what they cooked for Thanksgiving stuffing," says author Diane Morgan, who has written several holiday cookbooks, including "The New Thanksgiving Table." "They were mostly doing some variation of rice with Chinese sausage. So it wasn't straying too far from their foods and incorporating them into a Thanksgiving meal."
Corporate America would eventually worm its way into the Thanksgiving dinner, offering the ease of convenience, that mid-20th-century buzzword that would give rise to stuffing products such as Pepperidge Farm and Stove Top, among others. Numerous people in my survey said that they grew up on stuffing made with Pepperidge Farm mixes.
Each stuffing is American in its own, sometimes complicated, way. But could there be a stuffing more American than the one White Castle unleashed on the country in 1991, purportedly a creation of a company employee who adapted her grandmother's recipe? It's a stuffing built with hamburgers, from a fast-food chain that debuted in the American heartland.
Many years ago, Therese Lewis, a culinary manager for Dierbergs Markets in the St. Louis area, served the White Castle dressing to her family on a dare. Personally, Lewis has a soft spot for White Castle. She grew up with its juicy sliders, steam-grilled over chopped onions. But she wasn't sure how those fast-food flavors would translate to the Thanksgiving table. So she didn't tell her kids what was in the stuffing.
"They loved it!" Lewis recalls. So much that she now must serve the White Castle side dish every year, her own Midwestern spin on the ever-evolving Thanksgiving stuffing.
12 to 16 servings
This is a generous, eggless rendition that earns its New Jersey chops by using two kinds of Italian sausage and topping of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The family recipe comes by way of descendant David Smelson and is named for Grandma Jerry, whose name was Violet. She was a Polish Catholic immigrant who married a Jewish Eastern European immigrant named James Smelson. They both grew up in Newark.
MAKE AHEAD: The stuffing mixture, minus its broth, can be assembled and refrigerated a day in advance. The baked stuffing can be reheated, covered, in a 300-degree oven until warmed through.
Adapted from food blogger David Smelson.
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 large yellow onions, cut into small dice (about 3 cups)
1 clove garlic, minced
2 ribs celery, thinly sliced
1 pound sweet Italian bulk sausage
1 pound hot Italian bulk sausage
10 large basil leaves, rolled and cut into thin ribbons (3 tablespoons chiffonade; may substitute 1 tablespoon dried basil)
10 to 12 fresh sage leaves, rolled and cut into thin ribbons (3 tablespoons chiffonade; may substitute 1 tablespoon dried sage)
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (may substitute 1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves)
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
28 ounces (2 bags) dried corn bread stuffing cubes, preferably unseasoned
2 cups homemade chicken broth or no-salt-added dark/rich chicken broth, or more as needed
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use cooking oil spray to grease 2 or 3 large baking dishes or casseroles.
Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir in the onions, celery and garlic. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, adding another 2 to 4 tablespoons of butter, as needed, until the onions and celery have become translucent. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl.
Add the two kinds of sausage in pinches to the pan; cook 12 to 15 minutes, until it loses its raw look, breaking it up into smaller pieces as it cooks. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to the mixing bowl. Discard the rendered fat in the pan.
Add the herbs, lemon zest and corn bread cubes to the bowl, stirring to incorporate. Gradually pour in the stock or broth, stirring to distribute it evenly.
Divide the stuffing mixture among the casserole or baking dishes; you should have enough to also put some inside a turkey, if desired.
Melt the remaining butter, then use it all to drizzle over the stuffing. Scatter the cheese on top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake (middle rack) for 30 minutes, then uncover and check for dryness; add more stock or broth if the stuffing seems dry, then cover and bake a bit longer. If it seems too wet, leave it uncovered and bake for another 15 minutes.
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