A Thanksgiving debate: Stuffing or dressing? Cornbread or another?

J. H. Osborne • Nov 18, 2018 at 6:00 PM

A debate among friends began with a Facebook post by Roy H. Odum II. Stuffing or dressing? What do you prefer? Perhaps, most important, is there a difference?

Roy asked for thoughts on dressing vs. stuffing, as well as preferred ingredients, and pointed out stuffing goes in the bird for baking, while dressing is a side dish baked separately.

Some folks do both. They stuff the bird, but bake a separate dish of the same mixture for actual eating.

Next up is the question of what kind of bread? Roy’s FB crowd seemed to lean toward a preference for cornbread, although some said they use white bread, biscuits or combinations of breads. Leading ingredients seem to be celery and onion. There’s a split on adding sage.

Robin Davis Cleary drew a line in the sand midway through comments on Roy’s post: “My mom’s dressing is the very best!”

Robin, executive director of Keep Kingsport Beautiful, was a bit busy last week prepping for “Santa’s Depot,” a community event that greets the Santa Train. But I asked Robin if she had just a few minutes to get me her mom’s dressing recipe. She did, and here it is:

Dressing recipe of Judy Ann Davis.

• Bake cornbread ahead of time. A day ahead is OK. You’ll need a large cast iron skillet or a 9 x 13 baking pan of cornbread. Crumble cooled cornbread until it is a fine consistency.

• Other ingredients: a package of herb stuffing mix; a large onion, chopped; four or five stalks of celery, diced;  1/2 to 1 cup fresh mushrooms, chopped; a pound of breakfast sausage (mild or hot, your pick); sage; poultry seasoning; one or two cans of chicken broth.

• In large bowl, mix cornbread and stuffing mix. Sautee onions, celery and mushrooms in butter. Brown sausage until it crumbles into small pieces and drain. Add sautéed vegetables and sausage to dry ingredients. Sprinkle in poultry seasoning and dry sage (to taste). Gradually add chicken broth to ingredients and mix with your hands. The desired consistency should be soft, damp and slightly sticky. Place into 9 x 13 baking pans (typically two will be required) that have been sprayed with cooking spray. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes until lightly brown and firm. Cut into squares to serve.

“To my boys, to our entire family really, the smell of the onions and celery, the sage, the sausage, this means Thanksgiving,” Robin said. “It means that Mom is making her dressing, which to us, is simply the best dressing ever. It’s my sons’, Colin Cleary and Rafferty Cleary, favorite Thanksgiving dish. They adore their grandmother and there are certain dishes that she makes that they simply WILL NOT do without. Her dressing is Thanksgiving, just like her deviled eggs are Easter. We are very blessed to have Mom and all the things that she’s done to make holidays special are memories that my boys cherish.”

A warning

Robin noted Judy is a cook-from-memory cook, so this isn’t a “measured” recipe. It’s one that’s she’s made for over 55 years, so she knows it by heart.

That’s something my mom has in common with Robin’s mom. Mom believes dressing is one of several recipes taught to her as a young bride by her first next door neighbor in Kingsport, Lucille Lemons. Like Robin’s mom, Judy, Mom doesn’t have a written recipe for some things.

Thanks to talking to friends after Roy’s original post, I’ve learned my family is in the apparent minority with just how we like our dressing. Mom does not bake her dressing in a pan. She forms it into balls, then flattens it into a patty. We never called them patties. Or cakes. We just asked for “another piece of dressing.” My boss, Stephanie McClellan Houk, is the only other friend I’ve found whose mother made dressing this way. Only Stephanie’s late mother, Emily Barnes McClellan — known to many as Mrs. Cobb for her 30 years at Rocky Mount Historical Site — described the final product as croquettes. Stephanie’s mom used bags of stuffing mix — regular, not cornbread. My paternal grandmother, Maude Ward Osborne, used stale loaf bread, cubed, and if she had some on hand, day-old biscuits. And she baked it in a pan. My siblings and I loved her cooking and baking, but when it came to dressing we hands-down preferred Mom’s.

But I watched her make a small batch of dressing last week. She begins by chopping fresh celery and onion, which she then sautees until translucent. To this she adds Campbell’s cream of chicken soup, rubbed sage, poultry seasoning, black pepper and salt (all spices “to taste”). Once this “gravy” is well blended, she begins to hand-crumble her homemade cornbread into the pot. She adds the bread until “it looks right.” After it cools, the croquettes (I can’t call them anything else now) are formed and baked on a lightly greased cookie sheet.

To taste?

If you’re a true novice and wondering what “to taste” means in a recipe, the best advice I an offer is start small. If it is a spice you are not familiar with, simply smell it before you add any at all. Gauge your own reaction in deciding what to use or exclude. The best recipes are the ones you adapt to your own tastes. After adding small amounts taste a bit of the mixture. If it is something you aren’t comfortable sampling “raw,” bake a tiny portion. After tasting increase the spices as needed until you reach your desired level of flavor.

Santa and others

Toward the end of the Santa Train’s 76th annual run Saturday, I talked with Santa. I know Thanksgiving isn’t his holiday, but hey, we can all tell he likes to eat, right? So I asked which he preferred. Stuffing or dressing? “Dressing. I like it better because it has crust.” Cornbread or some other? “Just good old Northeast Tennessee cornbread dressing.”

My inquiry must have made Santa’s stomach go rumbly, because he quickly added “Santa loves Bellafina Chocolates,” a reference to a downtown Kingsport business. “And that’s a direct quote.” So, would he prefer that to milk and cookies? “Santa loves it all,” he said. “That’s why he needs to go on a diet.”

I left Santa, waving to folks along the railroad from the train’s rear platform, and made my way back inside. And the first person I saw was Kingsport Chamber of Commerce CEO Miles Burdine. So I asked him the same questions I’d asked Santa.

For the record, Miles, too, likes cornbread dressing — but he likes it with sausage added, so he’ll should be happy with the recipe Robin’s mom agreed to share with Times News readers.

Vicki Cooper Trammell was among the first to ask for that recipe. She said she remembers tasting it many years ago and when she saw Robin’s comment on Roy’s post it made her remember how good it was and she’s hoping to make if for her own family this week. Vicki’s biggest Thanksgiving wish is already here: her military lawyer son, U.S. Air Force Maj. Nick Cooper, a JAG serving in South Korea, is home on leave.

Vicki says Robin’s mom’s recipe sounds like it will be similar to what her own late mother, Jo Ann Hall, made when she and her siblings were young. Hitting on what has emerged as a common theme, Jo Ann didn’t write her recipes down either and Vicki never thought to watch her make it. 

Happy Thanksgiving and eat all the stuffing or dressing you want.

 J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at josborne@timesnews.net.

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