Missing the memories found in Thanksgiving dressing

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut, Kitchen Table Talk, West Knox

I won’t be eating Thanksgiving dressing made from my mother’s recipe this year.


That is a monumental happening. I can count on one hand the number of Thanksgivings I have not had a big scoop of Frances Gardner’s Thanksgiving Dressing on my plate to celebrate the holiday. As I have been knocking around this world for 65 Thanksgivings, that’s a lot of memories baked into a pan of cornbread, biscuits and chicken broth.

I missed my mom’s dressing in 2016 because I was in the hospital. I missed the dressing in 1990, the year my mother died, because I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the recipe and make it. There may have been another time or two as a child, but I doubt it. My family was big on tradition, and the cornbread dressing was a cornerstone tradition for Thanksgiving.

This year, I will miss the dressing because the chefs on the cruise my husband and I are taking won’t let me in the kitchen to make it. I have already offered to teach them how to make Southern biscuits. The food on our ship is good, but whatever those things are they are calling biscuits, aren’t.

We will be in Puerto Vallarta on Thanksgiving Day. That may mean tacos for lunch, but the dinner menu back on the ship promises full-fledged American Thanksgiving fare.

I am sure it will be delicious. They just won’t have Mother’s dressing.

Seriously, it’s not the dressing l will miss; it’s all the memories that are tied up in chopping onions and celery, finding the right chicken broth, mixing and stirring until the consistency is just right and then adding the “secret ingredient.” Memories of making dressing for Thanksgiving span decades for me. I have childhood memories, teenage memories, college memories, newly-married memories and, finally, memories with my own children all mixed up in the big silver bowl we use every year.

I began sharing my mother’s recipe years ago through my News Sentinel column. I shared it when I was in Blount County at Blount Today. Today, I am sharing it with you. This column is called Kitchen Table Talk, so it seems fitting.

Spurring me on to repeat the recipe are the emails and messages I have had over the past week from readers who make the dressing every year and couldn’t find their recipes. I have emailed all of them, so they have a head start, although the dressing is fairly simple to make.

If you try it, I hope you enjoy it. It’s simple, but it’s tasty and very Southern. Scoop up an extra spoonful and eat it for me!

Frances Gardner’s Thanksgiving Dressing

Notes: The problem with sharing my dressing recipe is that so much of it depends on how it “looks.” The amount of broth depends on how well the cornbread cooked up and how fluffy the biscuits were. And this recipe makes a large serving pan of dressing that feeds at least 24. Feel free to cut it in half. If you do, use 2 large eggs. The amount of chicken broth you add is always a bit of a guess-timate. The dressing, when ready to pour into the pan for baking, should be the consistency of oatmeal.

Ingredients:

  • 2 pans of Southern-style buttermilk cornbread
  • 6 buttermilk biscuits
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 1 bunch celery, chopped
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons rubbed sage
  • 3 quarts (approximately) chicken broth (make your own or use ready-made)
  • Butter to sauté onions and celery

Secret ingredient:

  • 1 tablespoon baking powder and
  • ½ cup buttermilk

Steps:

  • Cook cornbread and let cool. Then crumble cornbread into a large bowl. Cornbread should be finely crumbled.
  • Bake the biscuits and let cool. Crumble biscuits into the cornbread mixture.
  • Chop onions and celery, reserving ¾ cup of onions
  • Sauté celery and all but the reserved onions in butter until tender and translucent. Do not skimp on the butter.
  • Mix sautéed onions and celery into cornbread/biscuit mixture.
  • Add salt, pepper and sage, to taste. Do not add more salt as the chicken broth is salty.
  • Make a “well” in the dressing bowl and add eggs, beating with a fork. Then mix well.
  • Add the raw onions.
  • Start adding chicken broth.
  • The key to getting the right amount of chicken broth is to pay attention to the consistency of the dressing. It should be pourable, but not thin. Best comparison is that it should be the consistency of a bowl of oatmeal.
  • Spray with Pam with Butter or butter a large serving size pan (like you see at cafeterias or catering). Make sure you get the sides and corners.
  • In a glass mixing cup (2 cup at least) put in baking powder. Add buttermilk and stir as it foams up. Then add three “dollops” of the foamy mixture to the dressing and stir it in gently. (My mother said this kept the dressing from “packing down.” I have no idea if that is true, but I have never made the dressing without adding the “secret ingredient.”)
  • Pour dressing in pan and bake in a preheated oven set to 375 degrees.
  • Cook for approximately 30 to 45 minutes, but you have to watch it. It needs to not jiggle when you shake the pan and be brown on top. Do NOT overcook. It is meant to be spooned, not cut.

If it starts to get too brown on top before it is done, cover with aluminum foil.

If you freeze some of it, you may want to add more warm broth when you heat it, so it won’t be dry.

Sherri Gardner Howell has been writing about family life for newspapers and magazines since 1987. She lives in West Knoxville, is married to Neville Howell and has two sons and three grandsons.

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