Holiday meals were a known quantity when I was a child. In our extended family each member claimed a different holiday dinner to host. Every year we gathered at the same house for the same occasions and looked forward to dining on the same menu with the same guests as the year before, give or take minor variations.
Christmas Day we ate a dinner of Baked Ham with Scalloped Potatoes, Oyster Casserole and a congealed Cranberry Eggnog Salad at Aunt Hen’s. For Christmas Supper we ate Country Ham with Red-Eye Gravy at Mammaw’s house. Christmas Eve was open to some flexibility but was always eaten at Aunt Bet's. On Thanksgiving it was our turn to host the feast.
After Mom died, Dad continued the tradition of hosting Thanksgiving dinner at our house. The guest list remained the same. Mammaw and Pappaw, my mom’s parents, were always there along with Aunt Hen, Aunt Bet and sometimes other friends. The night before Thanksgiving we would get together and help Dad get things ready. Usually that meant sharing coffee and stories in the kitchen while we got out the Currier and Ives Ironstone place settings and made sure Mom's silver flatware was polished. Dad made sure the turkey was fully thawed and the stuffing was ready to be assembled. His Plain Bread Stuffing always earned compliments.
Staging the Show
On Thanksgiving morning, Dad would rise very early, stuff the turkey and get it nestled in a slow oven. While it baked he held vigil in the warm kitchen, tending the turkey while he had his morning coffee, basting it as necessary to encourage a golden bird. I remember waking up to the aroma of Roast Turkey as it began to fill the house. As the morning progressed the rest of the dinner was prepared. We always had Corn in Butter Sauce, Southern Style Green Beans, Mashed Potatoes with Gravy, Candied Sweet Potatoes, Cranberry Sauce, a Relish Tray and Soft Rolls.
As guests arrived the women gathered in the kitchen to help with last minute details. Though Aunt Hen was generally among the first to arrive and might be asked to make the gravy she would always defer to Mammaw’s greater experience when she and Pappaw arrived with the Pumpkin Pies. Aunt Hen brought another pie, made at my request, because I didn’t like Pumpkin. I don’t remember who made the Candied Sweet Potatoes. No one ate much of them. No one in the family really liked sweet potatoes but tradition dictated their place on the table.
Dad cooked the Buttered Corn and Green Beans along with the Turkey and Dressing. He put on the giblets for the gravy stock and he liked to arrange the Relish Tray; a pretty dish with celery hearts, carrots, green onions and olives. When the women arrived, however, he yielded the stove-top to them and focused on carving the turkey.
Duplicating the Magic
My Dad’s Plain Bread Stuffing has been a hard recipe to duplicate. When I asked for the recipe he directed me to his old Better Homes and Garden’s Cookbook. There I found a basic recipe for Celery Stuffing. It is the same as my Dad’s in theory. In reality, adapting that recipe to the dish he prepared required examining the concept from his point of view. I remember him multiplying the recipe, carefully premixing the salt and spices in a small bowl, leaving loaves of sliced white bread open to get stale early in the week and then gently turning the bread cubes the day before until they met his expectations for firmness. The only other helpful tip I was ever able to elicit was, “I get in with both hands and mix it.” I am guessing he was often a little overgenerous with the butter as well. In any case Dad's stuffing, when slowly cooked inside a well-basted turkey, was worth raving about even without any special ingredients. It was home cooking at its best.
When I make this dressing at Thanksgiving I also take liberties. In the end it remains more of a concept than a recipe. I hardly ever cook the stuffing inside the turkey. Instead I bake it in an enameled cast iron casserole. I often add some extra celery too, sometimes use different types of bread, sometimes use more butter and then add the broth until it seems right and the dried bread cubes are moistened. I also vary the temperature according to whatever is in the oven, a necessity on Thanksgiving and other special occasions. I leave it baking until it is hot throughout and shortly before serving I remove the foil or lid to encourage just a little browning on the top for a hint of crunch.
1 loaf white bread, cut into ½ inch cubes (about 10 cups)
1½ teaspoons dried sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ - 1 teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups celery with leaves, diced
1 medium onion, diced (about ¾ - 1 cup)
½ cup butter
2 cups broth, more or less
At least a day in advance, if possible, cut white bread into ½ –inch cubes. Scatter the cubes in a roasting pan or on a baking sheet and allow them to air dry and lose their softness. If the bread cubes are still soft when the time to assemble the stuffing approaches, place the pans in the oven and bake the crumbs at low heat (around 300F), turning them now and then, for 30 minutes or so. Allow them to cool again before adding them to the mixture.
In a small bowl, blend together the sage, thyme, pepper and salt. (We usually use dried herbs in the stuffing but if you have fresh herbs, all the better. Using minced fresh herb leaves, adjust the quantity by using 1 Tablespoon of fresh herbs to replace 1 teaspoon of the dried. Or, simply add a few sprigs of fresh to the quantity of dried herbs listed here to add a fresh boost to the flavor.)
Melt butter in a large pan on the stovetop. Add the onion and celery to the butter and saute over medium heat until the celery is tender and the onion is translucent. Remove from heat. Stir in the seasoning mixture. Stir in at least half of the bread crumbs tossing to coat well.
Pour contents of the pan over remaining bread crumbs. Toss to combine. (As my dad would say, feel free to get in there with both hands to mix it.) Pour 1 cup of broth over all, tossing to evenly distribute ingredients.
Turn the mixture into a large lightly greased 9” x 13” casserole dish. Add enough of the remaining broth to make the breadcrumbs moist but not enough to make them soggy.
Cover and Bake at 350F for approximately 30 – 45 minutes, or until hot throughout. Remove cover and continue baking until top begins to turn golden. (Or adjust cooking time to allow for the temperature to which your oven is set for other items.)