I’ll start out by saying that I am thankful that there will be a nice crowd around our Thanksgiving table, and enough of them are cooks that the burden pleasure of preparing the big meal is shared. Henry will roast the turkey, Mary Ellen and Carl are bringing green beans from their garden, Anna is making her favorite mac-n-cheese, Rachel is doing a cranberry dish (presumably while Nathan, the new Daddy, entertains Olivia), and Jan, Dan and Amanda are bringing dessert.
I am preparing my two favorite dishes, the sweet potato casserole and the cornbread dressing. Both of these are long-standing traditions on our Thanksgiving table, going back decades, to when my mother was the chief cook and provider of the holiday feasts. As we grew into adults, my sister Gwen and I took on some of the cooking tasks, first under Mom’s supervision and later going out on our own.
For this year’s Thanksgiving, I started a day ahead making the dressing with Mom’s instructions in my memory: “Start with a pan of cornbread.” Mom’s cornbread recipe was merely a list of ingredients that, when put together in the right order, usually turned into warm, crumbly bread with a satisfying crunch around the edge. It took me several years to get the proportions and the timing just right.
Set the oven to 450 degrees. Pour about a quarter cup of canola oil into a 10-inch cast-iron skillet and put it in the oven while it’s heating. Meanwhile, mix 2 cups of self-rising cornmeal – Martha White with Hot-Rize was Mom’s favorite — a pinch of sugar, 1 egg, and enough buttermilk to make a nice batter. When the oven and the oil and the skillet are hot, pour the oil into the batter; it should sizzle when you pour it on. Mix the oil in quickly and pour the batter back into the hot skillet, put the skillet back in the oven and bake until the top of the bread is golden brown, about 20 minutes.)
The dressing itself is also one of those recipes that Mom assembled from a list of ingredients put together by guesswork, but somehow it always worked out. Here’s my adaptation of her cornbread dressing.
Gather the ingredients: That pan of cornbread, a medium onion, 2 or 3 stalks of celery, about a half-stick of butter, chicken broth, fresh sage, rosemary, parsley and thyme, all finely minced, 1 egg, salt and pepper. Break the cornbread into small pieces into the bowl of a stand mixer and pour in enough chicken broth to begin to soften it, but not so much that it becomes soupy. Melt the butter in an iron skillet and saute the onion and celery until they are tender. Add the vegetables, along with the egg, to the cornbread and broth in the mixer bowl, and mix it until it is the consistency of thick batter. Now begin to add the herbs, about a tablespoon at a time, tasting as you go, until the mixture tastes like you think it should. (I tend to go light on the sage, mainly because Mom always said she didn’t like sage, and a little heavier on the parsley and rosemary.) Once you have the herbs balanced to your liking, add salt and pepper to taste, pour the mixture into a baking pan, and bake until it’s firm, but not dry, 30 – 40 minutes.
In truth, this recipe has improved over the years. I grew up in a kitchen that included McCormick’s Poultry Seasoning from that small tin can as a key ingredient in the Thanksgiving dressing, and I give credit to Mary Ellen, my sister-in-law, for reminding me years ago that fresh herbs taste better. I’m thankful that I’m able to have those herbs growing out back, just a few steps away from the kitchen door.
That’s just one of the many, many things, small and large, that I’m grateful for as our families prepare to gather today for a Thanksgiving feast. I miss my mother, but I’m thankful for this cornbread, and this dressing, our time on this earth together and the memory of the many Thanksgiving dinners our family shared.