You can keep your stuffing. My favorite Thanksgiving side is just that—on the side—and we call it dressing.
The word "stuffing" had a lot of connotations when I was a boy. None of them had anything to do with food.
Sofas had stuffing. But then again, I rarely heard the word "sofa." We sat on "couches." The first time I heard the word "sofa" I thought it was "Sofia," and I never did figure out why anyone had to sit on the poor woman. Once, I heard someone say they had to restuff their Sofia. This haunts me still.
I digress. Teddy bears had stuffing for insides. Baseballs had it. We were urged to "knock the stuffing out of it." If you caught a big fish, or shot a deer, or even a big gobbler, you could have them "stuffed and mounted." I was mightily confused.
Thanksgiving turkeys, however, did not have stuffing, though sometimes my aunt Jo did shove a whole stick of margarine in there. Stuffing, I would be educated, was another word for dressing. And our dressing, as God intended, was cooked separately, in a shallow baking dish or pan.
It was not something the great cooks in my family were willing to debate.
"Stick your hand up the back end of a raw turkey?" said my aunt Gracie Juanita, shaking her head violently from side to side. "That is not natural."
"Ain't even human," my mother said.
But the word stuffing was everywhere, come November. I heard it on the television, usually accompanied by images of a massive turkey with a golden cascade of breadcrumbs tumbling from its insides. Was I missing out? Why didn't we have stuffing if they had stuffing on Father Knows Best?
"You ain't missing nothin'," my mother told me.
I would learn that, like so many things I struggled to understand, it was a Southern thing, like why a faucet inside the house was a faucet but outside the house it became a hydrant. And Southerners, especially mine, did not tolerate in-the-bird dressing.
"It was kind of like dating a Catholic," said a very Southern friend. "Thank you, but, no." I dated many Catholics. I never had stuffing.
I would learn it stemmed from a generational fear of undercooked poultry. How could the turkey cook all the way through, my people reasoned, if the heat could not swirl around inside the bird? Onions, lemons, butter, and other seasoning were allowed, but a thick gob of breadcrumbs was salmonella waiting to happen. But even if bacteria were not an issue, the cooks in my family would have shunned stuffing for one simple reason: taste.
Our dressing started with an iron skillet of cornbread, mixed with onion, sage, and the fatty, golden nectar from boiled turkey or chicken, usually the pieces that would otherwise be thrown away. It was baked until a golden crust formed on the top, leaving the inside firm but creamy. Too dry and it set up like cake. Too wet and it was a watery mess. It had to be perfect, and usually was.
Years ago, I stood in a supermarket, staring at a "stuffing mix" of spices and prepackaged breadcrumbs—tiny, hard little cubes. Mama, I thought, was right again. But when I mentioned that we were having turkey and dressing at my house, my Yankee friends looked confused. You mean, they asked, the stuff you put on salads?
It is a miracle we fought only one war.