Do you call it stuffing or dressing? Do you make it with cornbread, bread crumbs, wild rice or cereal; oysters or sausage; inside the bird or in a pan?
It could be argued that there aren't two cooks in America who make precisely the same version of that essential side dish for Thanksgiving dinner, as well as for the next day's hot turkey sandwiches.
Nearly everybody has a twist, a trick or a spice that makes their dressing unique. Sage seasoning is probably the closest thing to a constant, not only for its taste but for its distinctive holiday aroma. But even if every family's recipe is different, when you eat your way around the country it becomes deliciously clear that some preferences are distinctly regional.
First, about the name: Up until Victorian times, everybody called it stuffing, a word that continues to prevail through much of the East and in some parts of the South. But manners mistresses of 100 years ago decreed that the word "stuffing" was rather crude and suggested that polite people could show their
breeding by using the nicer-sounding word "dressing." For many people today, the difference is simply that stuffing is what you make inside the bird, while dressing is what you make in a pan. Pennsylvania Dutch cooks add mashed potatoes to their bread stuffing and call it "filling." And it is!
In Louisiana, east Texas and the northern Great Lakes region, the essential ingredient is rice or wild rice. We've sampled hazelnut-based stuffing in Oregon and pecan stuffing in New Mexico. In the South and in seriously Yankee kitchens of the Northeast, cornbread rules. New England cooks might use cornbread
that is muffin-sweet. In Dixie, you'll likely find cornbread stuffing flecked with "cracklin's," crunchy bits of deep-fried pork skin.
At the Loveless Cafe in Nashville, they make dressing with a combination of cornbread and biscuits. But to a majority of cooks, plain bread is the foundation. Ordinary white bread—as crumbs, cubes or shreds—is part of so many traditional family recipes. For the absolute classic sage dressing, the place to go is Huber's Cafe in Portland, Oregon, which has specialized in turkey dinners for 122 years. In areas with a rich Italian or Portuguese heritage, expect sausage to add super savor to the dish; likewise, in the Southwest, Mexican chorizo can deliver a peppery punch.
Every November, the Tucson Tamale Co. goes a little bit wild and makes tamales with turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce: Thanksgiving in a corn shuck! In the Midwest and East, tradition-minded cooks add the silky luxe of chestnuts to the recipe. Stuffing made with oysters is big along Atlantic shores and the Gulf Coast, nowhere better than at Lil' Dizzy's Cafe in New Orleans. If you're the chef in charge of making stuffing for the family's Thanksgiving dinner, we have one piece of sage advice to offer, pun intended. Experiment all you wish; try new and exotic recipes to wow the guests. But no matter how clever you get, you must—we repeat, must—also make the stuffing that everyone expects, no matter how ordinary it may seem. Whatever else the holiday may be, Thanksgiving is all about family traditions.
Road Trip Guide to Stuffing
- Huber's Cafe 411 SW Third Ave., Portland, Oregon, 503-228-5686; hubers.com
- Lil' Dizzy's Cafe 1500 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans, 504-569-8997
- Loveless Cafe 8400 Highway 100, Nashville, Tennessee, 615-646-9700; lovelesscafe.com
- Tucson Tamale Co. 2545 E. Broadway Blvd., Tucson, Arizona, 520-305-4760; tucsontamalecompany.com
I've been serving this dish for years and always receive compliments on it. If you don't have day-old bread in your pantry, simply slice fresh bread and bake it at 300° for 10 minutes.
—Mary Ann Dell Phoenixville, Pennsylvania
It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without a serving of my family's favorite stuffing. If you can't find jarred chestnuts at your grocery store, check gourmet cooking shops or order them online.
—Lee Bremson, Kansas city, Missouri
Sage Sausage Dressing
Port is a sweet red wine that's often served as a dessert beverage, but it adds a deep flavor to our family's hearty stuffing.
—Denise Hruz, Germantown, Wisconsin