Seven days. I've got seven days till the greatest holiday of all time commences, and I haven't done a thing to prepare.
Once an avid home cook, I've prepared, no exaggeration, one meal since I moved here in July. A bowl of steel cut oatmeal, laced with sweet Texas honey and seasoned with a touch of Kosher salt. If that even counts.
Before I started eating for a living, Thanksgiving was my biggest, most important meal of the year. I'd spend a month testing new side dishes, making sure they didn't suck. I'd pre-order a bird sometime in October and quiz a sommelier or two about (cheap) wine I could get away with serving. Now? I'm wondering if I'll have time to bake a turkey breast.
But there is one dish I hope I get the time to give significant attention: Stuffing. Or do y'all call it dressing down here? Whatever you call it, that mixture of breadcrumbs, sausage and aromatics hasn't changed over my 33 Thanksgiving holidays.
It's my grandmother's recipe, titled Turkey Stuffing -- Vermont. I have no idea what the state has to do with anything, and I'm pretty sure she lifted it from an issue of Women's Day Magazine, but with a pencil and an index card she made it her own. And one Thanksgiving after another she made it ours, too.
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She sauteed onions and celery in Jimmy Dean sausage fat, with some salt and pepper, and a teaspoon of poultry seasoning. Stale cubes of bread got folded in, and the whole mess was moistened with a ¼ cup or so of that terrible cooking sherry that had been sitting in the back of the kitchen pantry for twenty years. The stuffing should hold its shape in your palm when you squeeze a handful of the mixture, according to the card.
This was the smell that woke my family up in the morning, and each Thanksgiving at the dinner table the stuffing was exactly the same, crammed into a turkey that was cooked till the limbs came loose and the breast was as dry as desert sand, the rest baked in a small white casserole dish with a design of blue line-work and a glass lid.
This year I'm re-invigorating things a bit. I'm even folding in a little bit of Texas. Instead of letting lame white bread go stale on baking sheets overnight, I'll head over to the Empire Bakery and grabbing whatever didn't sell the day before. Jimmy's sausage will replace Jimmy Dean, and I'll duck into Spiceman's to pick up fresh thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary to replace that dry powdery poultry seasoning. I'll pick up a bottle of Sherry that actually warrants sipping so it doesn't hide in the back of a cabinet when I'm done. And I'll bake it in a dutch oven, moistened with drippings from an un-stuffed bird while hoping it tastes just as good as that doughy, wet mixture I coveted year after year.
I'm a little nervous. Messing with a family recipe is serious business, and I'm playing with one of the most visceral food memories I possess. But I'm confident that updating time tested techniques with the very best ingredients I can find today will deliver great results. It might even kick off a new cascade of food memories as tangible and sentimental as the thumbprints my grandmother's food left on my youth. I bet she'd be proud. And then I bet she'd tell me to stop eating out so damn much.