Open any Hallmark card or watch a coffee commercial between now and the new year and you will be flooded with the storybook sentiment of the holidays. Ask anyone their feelings about Thanksgiving and they will tell you it’s a time for family, for great food and for, well, giving thanks. All of those things are certainly true for me. When I was young, Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays. I have strong sense memories of being in my Grandmother Smith’s house, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on television while the smell of roasted turkey wafted in from the kitchen. The air is always clear and crisp in these memories. I can recall running across the farm hills and valleys with dogs and cousins, the smell of barn hay, and the full stomach, distended from too much pie.
As adults, the machinations of holidays, family dinners, and life become more complex and, sometimes, more difficult to navigate. That was certainly the case for my son, Zach, and me. Many parents and children have ups and downs, and as we each grow into adulthood, things can be complicated. Zach and I had so many stops and starts in life, and things weren’t always easy. I’m sure that many mothers—and children—know this feeling.
Several years ago – before Maggie was born – Zach and I spent an entire afternoon together, preparing this dish for a Thanksgiving dinner. Although he says that we started early the morning before with a 2:00am chicken stock making session, I guess you could say that it really started 24 hours before with brining the large turkey. But the afternoon is what I remember most: I was deep into the process of preparing my Gram Perkins’ dressing recipe when Zach stopped by. I thought he was coming by that afternoon for lunch, but he surprised me by coming to help cook. Yeast rolls were rising and I was getting started on a pan of cornbread. Together, we began to combine the ingredients when Zach said, “This needs a splash of lemon juice.” I thought that sounded crazy but, lo and behold, it tasted delicious.
The base of the dressing comes from a recipe book that my mother put together of family recipes (and a few others she picked up along the way). The most current version of the little cookbook features a picture of Zach and Maggie on the front and is one of my kitchen treasures. The recipe we developed from the original (shown above) is a mixture of Gram Perkins’ aforementioned yeast rolls and cornbread. “It is important to make the cornbread correctly,” Zach says, adamantly. “Not sweet cornbread. Cornbread made with sweet corn, whole kernels.” Then there is the standard mirepoix (a mixture of chopped celery, onions, and carrots) and herbs. “We started from the basic recipe, then just kept adding and tasting, adding and tasting. It was what I’d call a ‘hunter’s’ dressing. We were just looking for what we had in the kitchen that would add the right flavor.” The essential ingredients that are not present in the original recipe, according to Zach: a pinch of nutmeg and bay leaf. Bay leaf is important.
I remember this particular afternoon as sort of an unexpected moment, the kind that sneaks up on you as a mother. Though I often worried about Zach, this was a day when he was really present, really there. “It was a nice moment,” he remembers. “We were interacting as mother and son, but as adults. We were collaborating, just the two of us. I felt that we were equals in that kitchen – peers, but with a special, sentimental feeling. We could look at one another and appreciate where we’d been.” We continued on throughout the afternoon, mother and son moving in concert with one another, each tasting and adding ingredients to their liking. Natural.
And it was the best dressing I have ever eaten. We may never be able to replicate it exactly. Maybe it was just the day. The sun was shining and the air was crisp. I was relieved and grateful that my son was in the kitchen with me.
Here you have our Mother and Son Dressing—or as best we can remember the ingredients. It is delicious when served exactly according to the recipe. But, I must recommend a little bit of experimentation, a little collaboration, and true thankfulness for the people you love. Oh – and some bay leaf.
MOTHER AND SON DRESSING
4 cups crumbled yeast rolls*
3 cups egg corn bread
1/3 cup onion, finely chopped
1/3 cup butter
3 cups turkey broth
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 cups boiled eggs, chopped
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 apples, peeled and chopped
1 cup walnuts, chopped
Juice from 1 lemon with seeds removed
Add to taste: thyme, cumin, cayenne pepper, red pepper, splash vinegar and chopped rosemary, chives, and sage.
Simmer the onion in broth until tender. Crumble the breads and mix in large bowl. Add onion and the cooking broth to the bread mixture. Add chopped eggs and seasonings and enough boiling turkey broth (about 3 cups) to make a soft mixture, add butter, and mix well. Stuff turkey cavities with dressing and pour remaining into a greased deep dish pan so that dressing is about 1 1/2 inches high. Bake about 25 minutes at 350 degrees or until top is slightly crunchy and serve hot.
*You may use any delicious bread, fresh or stale. I once made dressing with leftover French toast from breakfast and it was delicious.