Years ago, my Grandmother Paul taught me the secret to the best cornbread stuffing you can imagine. I can’t help but think of her whenever I make the recipe, elbow deep in the biggest bowl of stale bread and crushed crackers that you’ve ever seen. Truth is, you can’t tell a dime’s worth of difference between our stuffing. It’s been the same for generations. My family has come to expect it, just like I came to expect it when I was a little girl.
There truly are many kinds of different stuffing, but I’m very dedicated to the one I’ve been making for over 40 years. If there’s any variation at all, it’s that I don’t actually stuff the bird like I remember my grandmother doing. (Every good Southerner still calls it “stuffing” as opposed to “dressing.”) The only time I’ll cook mine in a bird is if I’m cooking a hen. She’s a tough ol’ bird, y’all, so you cook it totally different than you would a turkey or a chicken. You boil the hell out of it, stuff it and bake it in the oven.
But the old timey stuffing I make does not play second fiddle to anything—not even the turkey. In fact, she’s the best rival around. You sauté some fresh-cut onions, celery and peppers in a stick of butter, toss that with the breads and soak it with stock and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I do add some seasoning such as pepper and dried age, but I’m careful not to overpower the dish. Just make sure you don’t underestimate the size of your mixing bowl because stuffing can really grow on you. And if you remember one thing about my cornbread stuffing, let it be that you cannot make it from a sweet cornbread. Look at the box. If sugar is an ingredient, you have the wrong stuff. Use that, and it’ll ruin the dressing.
Y’all, I don’t eat this way everyday, but I do give myself permission to eat my favorite foods on the holidays. Part of my obsession is the wonderful flavors; the other part is the memories that celebration foods trigger—like the year after my daddy died, I remember my mother cookin’ the best stuffing of her life. I ate and ate and ate until I was sick. Then when momma past away, I vowed to make a meal she would be proud of. I spent most of the afternoon on the phone with my Aunt Peggy trying to make sure I was doing everything little thing right. That went on for awhile until my Uncle George finally lost patience and hollered, “If you don’t get off that damn phone, I’m not ever gonna get my meal!”
But the point isn’t just that my family’s cornbread stuffing is arguably the best around. It’s about that one special dish that defines the holidays for you and your family—the recipe that warms our heart, fills our belly and ultimately outlasts each and every one of us.
Cornbread, recipe follows
7 slices oven-dried white bread
1 sleeve crackers (recommended: Saltine)
8 tablespoons butter
2 cups chopped celery
1 large onion, chopped
7 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sage, optional
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning, optional
5 eggs, beaten
1 cup self-rising cornmeal
1/2 cup self-rising flour
3/4 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large bowl, combine crumbled cornbread, dried white bread slices, and saltines; set aside.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the celery and onion and cook until transparent, approximately 5 to 10 minutes. Pour the vegetable mixture over cornbread mixture. Add the stock, mix well, taste, and add salt, pepper to taste, sage, and poultry seasoning. Add beaten eggs and mix well. Pour mixture into a greased pan and bake until dressing is cooked through, about 45 to 60 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Combine all ingredients and mix well. Pour batter into a greased shallow baking dish. Bake for approximately 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.