The Art of Cornbread Dressing

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For the sum total of my twenty-eight years, my mother’s dressing had always been on my holiday table. This time, 7500 miles separated me and that pan of crumbled biscuits and cornbread. Would it truly be Thanksgiving if that stuffing wasn’t on the table?

I was an adult by all appearances and had a family of my own. I could make a crust, mash a potato, and even boil a Chinese dumpling. But I wasn’t too sure about reduplicating my mother’s dressing. It always seemed to have that special something.

Mother’s dressing was the perfect texture, not too soggy, but not too dry. It crunched with celery, savored with sage, and smacked with boiled egg. She always made it in the same pan, with the same ingredients, in the same way her mother had taught her years before

Making dressing wasn’t done by a recipe in our family. It was an art, a tradition passed down by togetherness and chatter, hands and drawls, smiles and warmth. Thanksgiving dressing was about family. As the day approached on that rainy November in Asia, I wasn’t sure I could duplicate the ritual. Something was missing.

Phone calls were expensive in those days, so I didn’t call my mother for the recipe. Instead, I wrote a blue, pre-stamped, single-sheeted aerogram that folded the message inside without an envelope. As I wrote, I tried to sound upbeat, giving her news of her granddaughters before ending with my request. It was hard to keep homesickness from translating through my trembling hand. 

In time, Mother’s response arrived in a chatty letter about the new kittens, the harvested cotton, and her fall garden on the farm. Enclosed was a separate slip of paper entitled “Sue Ward’s dressing recipe.” I knew the type-written font was my sister’s, as my mother had never sat at a typewriter in her life. 

Sue Ward was my brother-in-law’s cousin’s wife, and I wondered why this was included. As I pondered why I hadn’t received my mother’s recipe, I realized Mama probably didn’t have one. This one must have been the closest to her memorized technique, so it became my referral as I made my shopping list. 

My husband invited a few of our Chinese friends to experience the holiday with us, and I settled into preparation. In Asia, no American meal results without multiple trips to several locations, so I planned the week to include the wet market, the local grocery, and a few export stores. 

The recipe itself wasn’t complicated: a double batch of cornbread, six leftover biscuits, six boiled eggs, and an additional smattering of onion, celery, and sage. After pouring an unspecified amount of chicken broth into the crumbly mess, I plunged my hands in, like my Mama had before me. As the cornbread crumbled between my fingers and the sage puddled about my wrists, I sensed a rare connection with the kitchens of my Texas heritage.

When the day arrived, most around our table had never experienced American Thanksgiving. Chinese curiosity peaked, and their questions abounded. “Why are cranberries always included in your meal?” “What’s the significance of the pumpkin?” and “What is the meaning of the word pilgrim?” 

As I realized the varied ethnicities at our table, I smiled to think of that first Thanksgiving. They also had differing cultures and contrasting values. Yet all came together to celebrate another year of plenty. 

Amid the chatter of different accents and languages, I, too, joined the grateful hearts of my forefathers. I thought about what my year in Asia had brought: a safe transition for my family, a new set of friends, and a fresh set of eyes to see the world. 

As I took another bite of the cornbread dressing, I realized what had made my mother’s side dish special. It wasn’t the sage, the celery, or even the fact that her biscuits and cornbread were made from scratch. My mother’s stuffing was always made from a heart of thankfulness. Gratitude must be the traditional ingredient passed down to future generations, no matter where I am on the fourth Thursday in November.