If you’re looking for the birthplace of one all-American Thanksgiving food tradition, you might end up looking far beyond those Plymouth Rock-Pilgrims to Larsa, a city that happens to be in modern-day Iraq. You can gaze with curiosity and wonder at a 3,700-year-old clay tablet that contains not the famous Ten Commandments of Moses but a recipe for a roasted bird with a softened-bread dressing on the side.
Closer in time, and much closer to our cultural comfort zone, the ancient Romans never met a bird they didn’t like – to stuff, that is. They at least showed no confusion about “on the side” vs. “inside.” They almost always stuffed. The rest of us, with a nod toward where were grew up or presently live, show naming confusion in the same abundance we love to see on our tables whenever the big feast rolls around.
With our heritage in the Greco-Roman Western world, it’s a safe bet that stuffing is the more traditional. And “softened bread” that’s stuffed into turkey is logically called “stuffing,” which indeed it is in New England, that part of our country that claims the oldest links to the then-global empire mentioned in the region’s name.
Some food historians, however, think that the prudish tendencies of the Old South led home cooks to back away from all that intimate cavity-filling to bake what once had been stuffing in a separate pot, pan or dish. Rather quickly, again with a nod to propriety, “stuffing” was born again as dressing, typically made with omnipresent cornbread instead of traditional flour-based loaves and rolls. There are even records of dressing made with leftover biscuits, and it’s hard to think of anything more Southern than that.
The most dramatic departure might be the Mennonites of Pennsylvania, who were so thrifty they mashed up a mountain of boiled potatoes and stirred this into equal mountains of stale bread. Apparently as a sign of something different, since neither “stuffing” nor “dressing” mentions any ingredient, they called their creation “filling.” It’s actually as much a potato casserole, but it too can be part of the American Thanksgiving tradition.
Also showing regional influence is the addition of products found in abundance, meaning cheaply, instead of products expensive because they have to be shipped in. Oysters are a prime example, which figure (along with chestnuts) in the bread stuffing of New England and the cornbread dressing of New Orleans. Pork was the favored protein in the South, thus explaining the popularity of bacon or sausage, or both. In the Pacific Northwest, many recipes came to include a vast array of local fish and shellfish, starting no doubt with salmon.
Surely wars have been fought over less divisive issues than whether you say stuffing or dressing. You should at least make an effort to say what you actually do – especially in a world in which so many households dump the pre-mixed contents from a bag and cook it atop their stoves. Despite the large brand name on the bag, that would make it dressing. Just ask the people of ancient Larsa.
SAUSAGE & PEAR HOLIDAY DRESSING
We sometimes catch ourselves thinking that old song “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” is true of pears and apples. Apples are a traditional part of many families’ Thanksgiving dressing recipes, but not many think to try pears instead. For this recipe, we mix cubes of fresh pear into our mix of breads, caramelized vegetables, sausage and want of our favorite preserves.
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 bunch green onions, white and green parts, finely chopped
4 full cooked breakfast sausage patties, chopped
2 pears, peeled and cubed
1 tablespoon minced garlic
½ jar Fisher & Wieser’s Toasted Cinnamon Pear Preserves
2 day-old baguettes, cut or torn into cubes
6 slices whole-wheat bread, one or more types, cut into cubes
½ cup dried chopped parsley
1-2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons rubbed sage
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
Creole seasoning to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly caramelize the onion, bell pepper, carrot, celery and green onions in olive oil until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the cooked sausage, pears garlic and preserves, stirring to blend with the vegetables. In a large bowl, combine this mixture with all the breads, adding parsley, broth and turning with a fork or spoon until completely moistened. Season with sage, garlic powder, onion powder, lemon pepper and Creole seasoning. Transfer to a large baking dish and gently press down to remove excess air – not too much, though, so the dressing will remain light and fluffy. Drizzle top with olive oil. Bake until golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Serves 14-16.