No dish, not even barbecue, reveals regional differences and hometown loyalties in the South as clearly and divisively as dressing. Or stuffing. If you want to make an informed guess on where native Southerners grew up, ask them what they call it and then ask them to describe their favorite style. There is little agreement from region to community to family on what people will recognize, much less accept, as Thanksgiving dressing. Or stuffing. That being said, if the dish (by any name) is made in the South, the odds are forever in our favor that cornbread will be in the mix.
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It makes sense that cornbread would anchor most Southern dressings because we Southerners are cornbread connoisseurs. Biscuits might get more glory and press coverage, but on many tables, cornbread was, and is, the daily bread. It’s not impossible to get good cornbread in a restaurant, but it dwells mostly at home, the last holdout of scratch baking, where it is best made on demand in a black iron skillet. No fast food joint has attempted the mass mechanization of cornbread that can be wrapped in paper and passed through a drive-through window. No cornbread comes frozen or crammed into a whomp can.
Starting with the Native Americans, corn was a giant in Southern agriculture and home gardens. Even a small farm family of modest means could raise their own corn to grind into cornmeal rather than purchase wheat flour. Cornbread is a one-bowl, one-skillet quick bread that doesn’t even require an oven when there are glowing embers left from a fire. When times are dire and pickings are slim, cornbread can be stripped down to nothing more than meal and water, and still be filling and satisfying.
Dressing is another expression of resourcefulness and making much out of little. Its original role was twofold: first, it could make a limited amount of hard-to-come-by protein go farther, and second, it was a way to use up and spruce up the last crumbs of stale bread. Not only was slightly stale cornbread the type of bread most likely to be found in a Southern home kitchen, its texture is compliant, no matter what comes next. Depending on the recipe, cornbread dressing rangers from as crisp and chunky as bread salad to as rich and eggy as custard. Those textural differences, plus any regional add-ins such as oysters, chestnuts, boiled eggs, or sausage, are where family practices and habits hold sway.
So if cornbread is a common denominator, what is the difference between dressing and stuffing? In strictest terms, stuffing fills the cavity in another food item while cooking, such as that big bird destined for the center of the table. In contrast, dressing is a freestanding side dish. However, not everyone draws those distinctions, so the word a Southerner uses more often depends on the family vocabulary than the family recipe.
Call it what you will, the important thing is that it exists. It’s special because it doesn’t come along often, only a holiday or two each year. Turkey is a ubiquitous deli meat these days, but cornbread dressing remains the stuff(ing) of Thanksgiving dreams.