Cornbread dressing, giblet gravy, turnip greens, creamed corn… I can’t help but get a little giddy anticipating the menu at that most-important meal of the year, which we will enjoy in just a few short weeks. If your family is like mine, the Thanksgiving menu hasn’t changed much in the last – well – for about as long as anyone can remember. And heaven forbid anyone suggest that there is always too much food, and we should just skip the butter beans, because someone will surely cry, “But we always have butter beans on Thanksgiving!” It’s as if everyone, for a brief moment, has become completely convinced it’s our last meal and we will never eat again.
Each of those favorite dishes carry with them a special memory, a story, which is always faithfully recounted during dinner, the same stories year after year. Almost forty years ago, my dad was a college student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, miles away from Macon and my grandmother’s home cooking. Having driven two hours home, day-dreaming of the delicious meal that would soon follow, he arrived and took his place at the table. After the blessing had been said, the food began passing around the table, and the feeding frenzy began. The turnip greens started at the opposite end of the table, and by the time they made their way to dad’s spot, the bowl was empty. No turnips left for Jacky-Boy, the poor, youngest and only son! Of course every year since, the turnips start with him, and he dramatically retells the tale, which gets exponentially longer and more exciting with each passing year.
The main event of the day will always be the cornbread dressing. My grandmother would save leftover slivers of cornbread, biscuit crumbs, and spoonfuls of grits in preparation for everyone’s favorite dish of the year. On Thursday morning, with the Macy’s parade on in the background, I would lay out rows of bread to toast, creating that crucial balance of soft cornbread and crispy toast. Then after the turkey was done and the drippings had been collecting, would come the time – the ONE time – when my dad would be allowed into the kitchen to complete his ritual job of crumbling the bread. We would stir in the drippings along with boiled and pureed celery and onions. If it wasn’t moist enough, we might add that quintessential casserole ingredient, cream of chicken soup. Once we reached the right consistency, there was the issue of seasoning. Some salt (ok, a lot of salt), pepper, maybe some poultry seasoning, thyme, or whatever else we found in the spice cabinet that sounded good. We’d mix and taste, asking everyone in the kitchen’s opinion, as we stood around the large washbin, fork-in-hand. Finally we’d decide to call it a day, always lamenting that it wouldn’t be as good this year as last.
As we sit around the table this year, all the usual preparations having been made, I’m sure we’ll tell those same stories. We’ll wonder what Mammie would have said about this year’s dressing, and we’ll tell the story about the time the new blender exploded, releasing a stream of boiling hot celery and onion all over the kitchen. Or the time when the dishes piled up on the counters all the way to the bottom of the cabinets. And although we’ll miss Mammie and Grandaddy, we’ll relive our memories of them, and tell the same old stories for my little cousins to hear and their legacy will live on. In the end, it will surely be an amazing meal, but the best part will be the passing on of traditions that remind us who we are and where we come from. And in twenty years, when it’s my turn to host the family gathering, I hope I’ll be teaching a new generation of Cox’s how to make that same cornbread dressing.
I credit Mammie with teaching me the importance of tasting as you go. There is no such thing as a foolproof recipe, or one that always works, just as any Southern woman who has attempted to make meringue in South Carolina in July knows.