The Thanksgiving issue: Stuffing

Plumping up dead birds with bread crumbs is a bit of culinary foolery that dates at least to medieval Europe, as is combining bread crumbs with meat, fat, and spices and stuffing, or forcing, this “forcemeat” into nearly any available receptacle. Stuffing a turkey is therefore not at all an American idea in origin, and it seems not to be an American idea in style, either, because in our perfectionist age we’ve decided that it’s not only detrimental to the quality of the meat but actually dangerous. In the old days, half the point of roasting a turkey was to bring the stuffing to fulfillment by soaking it through with juice and rendered fat and unidentifiable squishy bits of the inside of the bird. The meat was an afterthought, a requirement of the holiday, a vehicle for the stuffing and building block for sandwiches the next day, and if it were a little stringy, well, that’s why God made mayonnaise and gravy. The problem, of course, is that by the time the stuffing is heated through, the turkey has overcooked, and if you don’t heat it through, you will surely die before Christmas of salmonella. Baked on the side, though, the stuffing is dull, sterile, unloved, all wasted potential like an unfreshened heifer. Then the turkey was dry and the stuffing was moist; now we’ve reversed the equation. It’s certainly more precise, but I’m not sure it’s an improvement.

Let’s pretend, though, that stuffing is a word we mean literally, as opposed to dressing, which is wont feel like leftovers before it’s even been served. It’ll be more fun this way.

Two centuries ago, stuffing was more richly and complexly flavored than most of what we see today. It was mainly bread, without nuts and fruits and other vegetable matter we add now to make unstuffed stuffing worth the bother of chewing. Celery didn’t become popular until the nineteenth century (when it was grown in multiple varieties and colors). Even onion’s merits were debated, at least for turkey. But bread stuffing often contained meat, though, and fat (which meant animal fat) and a variety of flavorings. Amelia Simmons (American Cookery, 1796) offered three recipes that give a sense of the possibilities. The first two are fairly familiar:

  1. Grate a wheat loaf, one quarter of a pound butter, one quarter of a pound salt pork, finely chopped, 2 eggs, a little sweet marjoram, summer savory, parsley and sage, pepper and salt (if the pork be not sufficient,) fill the bird and sew up..
  2. One pound soft wheat bread, 3 ounces beef suet, 3 eggs, a little sweet thyme, sweet majoram, pepper and salt, and some add a gill of wine; fill the bird therewith and sew up.

Note grated bread: this is a forcemeat without much meat, not a chunky side dish. The marjoram (standard in turkey-stuffing), thyme, savory, and parsley were from your own herb garden, used fresh if possible and home-dried out of season. The salt pork or suet came from the barrel in the cellar. The wine—well, why not? The eggs were the real luxury, especially in late November; eggs were seasonal, then, without artificial light to stimulate hens to lay in winter, and preindustrial breeds didn’t lay as prodigiously as ours.

The interesting recipe, and the genuinely American one, is the third:

  1. Boil and mash 3 pints potatoes, wet them with butter, add sweet herbs, pepper, salt, fill and roast.

Using mashed potatoes as stuffing is something I’ve always associated with Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, where “potato filling” is traditional in, depending on who your grandmother was, turkey, chicken, rolled flank steak, hog maw, and, especially, boova shenkel, which is not unlike pierogi. I was quite honestly surprised to find it not only here but in Fannie Farmer and The Joy of Cooking. I grew up eating potato filling as a side dish with turkey, as replacement for the mashed potatoes that can be prepared in advance and baked off at the last minute and is, moreover, considerably more interesting. (Recipe follows.)

Not much changed after fifty years. Eliza Leslie recommeneded “a force-meat of grated bread-crumbs, minced suet, sweet marjoram, grated lemon-peel, nutmeg, pepper, salt, and beaten yolk of egg. You may add some grated cold ham.” Lemons had grown a bit cheaper by the time Leslie wrote in 1840, and Leslie was inclined to the fancy anyway (she recommended serving turkey with mushroom-sauce rather than mere gravy). This is an outstanding combination, but on the other hand, she noted, “Turkeys are sometimes stuffed entirely with sausage-meat. Small cakes of this meat should then be fried, and laid round it.” If you are feeling that Thanksgiving dinner is a little heavy on the carbs, history offers an alternative.

By the end of the nineteenth century chestnut stuffing had come into vogue: not a bread stuffing spiked with chestnuts but a stuffing made entirely of them. Table Talk’s 1888 recipe was nothing but mashed chestnuts with butter, salt, and white pepper, a dish whose expense outweighs its flavor by as much as anything on the menu. Not that I dislike chestnuts, but whither the marjoram and the sweet thyme? Gone with the herb gardens, which fashionable women no longer kept. Those who preferred bread stuffing bought their herbs dried, in increasingly crumbly form with ever more one-dimensional flavor and diminished potency. The meat slowly disappeared, too: Mary Lincoln, who preceded Fannie Farmer at the Boston Cooking School, observed that stuffing was “more wholesome” without the salt pork. This notion was based not on the amount of salt or fat the pork offered but on a scrap of a research finding that pork took longer to digest in the human stomach than other meats, combined with a vague but increasing sense that pigs were dirty. The Gilded Age offered other variations: “Oysters, chestnuts, chopped celery, stoned raisins, or dates make a pleasing variety.”

All these recipes, of course, belie the real fact of stuffing, which is that you can stuff a bird with practically anything, and people have always done so. “There is no set rule for the proportions or ingredients for bread dressing,” Irma Rombauer admitted in the original Joy of Cooking, but she dutifully offered a set which was, ironically, the baseline for most twentieth century stuffing: bread, butter, onion, celery, and just a bit of seasoning (salt, paprika, and nutmeg). Add whatever you like, she wrote, but “It should be palatable, light and moist, but not ‘runny,’ well flavored but bland.”

Bland. Harumph.

I say the stuffing is one of your few chances to experiment and, well, accessorize at Thanksgiving, so do it up right. Or fascinatingly wrong. You can always try something else next year. But there’s no excuse for just being bland.

Recipe: Sweet potato cornbread dressing

This stuffing, or, to call a spade a spade, dressing, since we both know you’re not going to stuff it into the turkey, has the virtue of sounding old-fashioned and early American, but it’s actually nouveau-retro soul food, a 1990s-style let’s-celebrate-our-regional-roots sort of thing. It’s inspired by the dish of the same name from Sweet Potatoes restaurant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where they stuff it into catfish, among other things. I posted the recipe several years ago, and you can use that version. Unless you are serving vegetarians, do baste the dressing with turkey drippings before baking. (Turkey drippings! Huzzah!)

Recipe: Pennsylvania Dutch Potato Filling

This is the recipe I grew up with, originally submitted by Irene Fritzinger to the Cook Book: A Book of Favorite Recipes compiled by the Joygivers class of Maidencreek Union Sunday School in Blandon, Pennsylvania, 1967. I’ve never thought of stuffing a turkey with it; we ate it instead of mashed potatoes, and it’s a serious boon not to have to mash potatoes a half an hour before dinner on Thanksgiving.

I’ve only barely rewritten the instructions from the original — it’s hard to imagine a recipe I haven’t tweaked, but this is practically mother’s milk for me. I’ll add a couple of notes, though. First, the bread cubes are traditional but not really necessary; if you don’t have plain soft white bread, you can leave them out and cut back on the milk a bit. Second, I probably throw in more celery than the recipe calls for; I don’t really measure. And third, since potatoes vary in size, you want to add milk until the mixture is rather softer than mashed potatoes should be, but not runny; the eggs will help it set up as it bakes.

  • 10 to 12 potatoes
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup celery, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
  • 1 cup bread cubes
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 pint (2 cups) milk

Peel and boil the potatoes until soft. Sauté onion and celery in butter until soft but not brown. Mash potatoes, add the salt, pepper, and parsley, and the bread cubes, then beat in the eggs. Slowly add the milk. Put into a casserole and bake uncovered at 350° [or up to 400°, if that’s where you need the oven] about 30 minutes or until brown on top.

You can make this the day before, refrigerate overnight and bake it off right before dinner, in which case it will need more like 45 minutes to an hour in the oven.