My grandmother was a gifted writer, a teacher, and an incredibly talented woman. She had an infectious sense of humor, and could cut quite a rug when she got started.
But she was a terrible cook.
While most grandmas lovingly created memorable dishes for their adoring friends and family, my grandmother (and she was always “Grandmother,” never “Grandma”) served burgers, boxed macaroni and cheese, and my personal favorite, “breakfast for dinner.” That last one allowed her to pour cereal in a bowl and call it a night. Winner.
And though her culinary skills were truly lacking, my grandmother did master exactly two dishes: a big vat of perfectly spiced chili, and a traditional Thanksgiving stuffing.
A Family Tradition
Thanksgiving in my family – like many of my memories – was a big, noisy affair. A panoply of people packed into our tiny house. My mom brought out the special “apple dishes,” and a sheet of plywood turned the pool table into a dining table large enough to hold us all. Meal prep started days ahead, from washing potatoes, to thawing the turkey, to drying out bread for my grandmother’s stuffing.
And we ate lots of it. At least two, often three large casserole dishes of the bready goodness.
The fact is, our Thanksgiving stuffing is just a simple, traditional bread stuffing. It’s a mix of bread, onions, celery, broth, egg, and poultry seasoning. Basic. And with good reason. My grandmother grew up in a Midwestern family affluent enough to send its daughters to college during the Great Depression. While other girls in her generation learned domestic duties, she was studying to be a writer and a teacher. When her father left the bulk of his fortune to a cousin with a disability, my brainy grandmother had to make do. She learned her two signature dishes, and that was that.
When my grandmother died, my mom took the reins of making the Thanksgiving stuffing. Unlike her artistic mother, my mom thrived on details and analysis. Her stuffing became a work of tactical precision, measurable and scalable. She added mushrooms to the mix, but otherwise our stuffing remained as it had always been: bread, celery, onion, broth and poultry seasoning, carried out to exacting standards until sampled by her picky daughter.
Now my mother is also gone, and the Thanksgiving stuffing duty falls to me. The last six years have been marked by my efforts to recreate a family treasure – with decidedly mixed results.
Bread and Celery and Onion, Oh My
One thing to know about my mother is that she lived by the mantra “too much is never enough,” so the recipe I inherited calls for, among other things, five cups of celery and 40 (yep, 4-dash-zero) cups of bread cubes. I’m trying to bring the quantity back to “large family” rather than “small army.” That’s led me to wrestle with ingredients and methods in ways that strain my own limited culinary abilities, undoubtedly inherited from my kitchen-challenged grandmother.
My mom would lay out bread slices to dry all around the house, then sit and tear each slice into pieces. Yeah, no. I decided to cube the slices first. The first year, the cubes were too small and got mushy. The next year, I tried bigger cubes so they’d keep their shape. Didn’t work. Big cubes made it too chewy and dry.
Then there was the year I really cut back the quantity, but still put the stuffing into two pans. It overcooked and became hard all the way through.
Another time my brother, the Publix baker, thought we should try a special bread. Enter the year of the challah stuffing. No further comment on that one.
So, I’m still working on it.
Family, Food and Memories
It’s pretty much just my brother and me now, with our families. Thanksgiving isn’t quite the big production it used to be, but we hold on to as many of our traditions as we can. I bring out the apple dishes (just for dessert now), and I keep trying to make that elusive Thanksgiving stuffing, like my mother and grandmother did before me. It’s a work in progress, but with every attempt I’m reminded of two strong, beautiful women, so different and so much a part of me. Here’s hoping this is the year I finally get it right.
Old-Fashioned Bread Stuffing
From Better Homes and Gardens
1 1/2 cups chopped or sliced celery (3 stalks)
1 cup chopped onion (1 large)
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 tablespoon snipped fresh sage or 1 tsp. poultry seasoning or ground sage
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
12 cups dry bread cubes
1 – 1 1/4 cups chicken broth*
Sage leaves (optional)
1.Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In a large skillet cook celery and onion in hot butter over medium heat until tender but not brown. Remove from heat. Stir in sage and pepper. Place bread cubes in large bowl; add onion mixture. Drizzle with enough chicken broth to moisten; toss lightly to combine. Place stuffing in a 2-quart casserole dish. Bake, covered, for 30 to 45 minutes or until heated through. Top with fresh sage. Makes 12 to 14 servings.
– Stir 2 medium cored and chopped apples into bread cubes.
– Omit 1 cup of the celery and substitute 2 cups sliced mushrooms. Cook mushrooms with the celery in Step 1, above.
– Stir one 15-ounce can chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped, into bread cubes.
– Stir 1 cup cooked wild rice into bread cubes.