Southern Cornbread Dressing

I was in college the first time I heard about “Yankee dressing,” when a sorority sister described going to Thanksgiving dinner with her boyfriend in Iowa.

Growing up, I only knew of two types of dressing: cornbread dressing, which we had in my family (which we simply called “dressing,”) and oyster dressing, which was contributed by my aunt’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Brandenburgh. Mrs. Brandenburgh was from coastal Virginia, so of course her dressing had a seafaring twist. Mrs. Brandenburgh was a fixture at family parties my entire life and only died a few years ago; I think it’s funny that no one ever dared to call her by her first name, even though she was a very sweet woman. I aspire to that level of respect when I’m a dowager. Now that Mrs. Brandenburgh has gone on to her eternal reward, no one makes oyster dressing anymore. I miss it.

When I married and moved to Chicago, I noticed chestnuts in all the grocery stores around Thanksgiving time, and was shocked to learn that people make dressing from them. Who knew? (I seriously had never seen a bag of chestnuts before and thought their only purpose was decorative). My husband’s family serves two kinds of dressing: the cornbread variety and a curious mush made with white bread which I think must be like the “Yankee dressing” my sorority sister had that time in Iowa. I try to be polite, but it’s really not what I’m looking for in a dressing. The cornbread dressing at his family luncheon is a lot like the dressing at my own family’s dinner.

I find regional differences really interesting in general, and I love conversations about people’s various dressing philosophies. Within each major genus of dressing (cornbread, oyster, white bread, and chestnut are the ones I know of), there are even smaller distinctions that are often a statement of family history or regional heritage. Sometimes I wonder if you could pinpoint a person’s exact regional and ethnic background down to a few miles based on specific dressing preferences. Someone should do a doctoral thesis on this.

My family’s dressing recipe is an oral tradition that has been passed down through the generations to the person who has the hallowed job of contributing the dressing. It went from my grandmother to my Aunt Judi and now my mother. It’s simple: crumbled biscuits and cornbread, celery and onions sautéed in butter, chopped hard boiled eggs, salt, pepper, chicken broth (or turkey drippings), and sage. It’s also complicated because there are no exact measurements in this oral tradition. You’re supposed to learn it from the person who knows, and then you’re supposed to just know how to do it by practice. My grandmother couldn’t give an exact measurement on the sage, so her advice was “don’t be shy.”

I feel like recipes that are passed down this way are like a game of telephone. If one generation makes it one way, but doesn’t record the specifics for posterity, how does it change over time? If you set my dressing next to my grandmother’s or great grandmother’s dressing, how would they be alike and how would they be different? Was anything omitted or added between then and now by someone trying to improve the recipe? And how will my daughters modify the recipe to suit their lives when they grow up?

Below you’ll find the recipe as I’ve been able to quantify it. I know most families stick to their own dressing traditions, at least for Thanksgiving day. We also have this on Christmas, and I like it so much I make it several times throughout the fall and winter, just to retain my muscle memory.

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Southern Cornbread Dressing

  • 1 large pan of cornbread
  • 3 biscuits
  • 6 chopped hardboiled eggs
  • 1 stick of butter (or nondairy margarine)
  • 4 cups chopped celery
  • 1 cup chopped yellow onion
  • lots of chicken broth (or veggie broth)
  • salt and Bourbon Smoked Pepper
  • sage—don’t be shy

Crumble cornbread and biscuits until you have a fine meal in baking dish.

Saute onions and celery in stick of butter, until tender; season with salt, pepper, and sage while in the skillet. Gently fold into cornbread mixture. Add salt, bourbon smoked pepper, and sage, gently folding in. Fold; don’t stir. Pour some veggie broth into a measuring cup and pour over slowly, gently folding into the mixture to keep it light and fluffy. (Do not stir too much or it’ll get too pasty). Pour just enough until the mixture is moist. At this point you can let it sit for awhile.

Just before cooking, pour more veggie broth over the mixture—it will be wet but will absorb when baking. Bake for 350º for 30 minutes or so, until brown on top. I add hardboiled eggs at the end, while keeping the dressing warm, so that they don’t get too hard in the cooking process.

Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving!

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