I’m in charge of making the Thanksgiving turkey again this year and I offered to also make traditional stuffing — or dressing as we call it in our household — since one of the grandgirls will only eat the stuffing that comes from a box.
By golly, I make mine the old-fashioned way. I use stale bread, tear it apart and add my chopped onion and celery just like my mother did. In goes the sage — what is Thanksgiving dressing without sage? — and stir in the requisite egg and a pinch of baking powder to make it raise.
The key, my mother explained to me as she taught me the traditional family recipe, is to use enough chicken broth to make it overly moist so it doesn’t dry out too much in the oven.
Loath as I am to admit this, my first attempts at creating the perfect dressing were, well, not so good. I tried; oh boy, did I try. But the cooks in our family aren’t generally recipe users. The foods that we’ve been enjoying forever are simply refinements of what probably was a recipe at one time.
Like my mother’s candied sweet potatoes. I especially feel the loss of her passing as we plan the menu because my daughter has tried for years to make her Gramma’s sweet potatoes.
The last time we were up home for Thanksgiving and my mama cooked, a demonstration was given. My daughter studied my mother’s quick movements as she combined the various ingredients into her famous dish.
Back home, my daughter tried to duplicate the process. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t Gramma’s. So before she tried again, she called my mother to double-check the details.
My mother called back a few minutes after they’d hung. Thinking it over, she’d forgotten one step.
I’m proud to announce that I finally mastered dressing and added my own twist: I bake it in the slow cooker. Not only does that save valuable oven space, but I can start it when I tuck the turkey in the oven and forget about it until serving time.
And sometimes after. One year, our table was so full that we were nearly done eating before someone questioned the lack of dressing. Trust me, it does not make a good accompaniment to pumpkin pie with whipped topping.
My mother’s one concession to store-bought at Thanksgiving was the jellied cranberry sauce that comes in a can. The brand she bought used a ribbed can, which made it easy to slice and arrange in a bowl.
Over the years, we’ve had cranberry relish and cranberry salad made with Jello, which get a lukewarm reception. The jellied sauce, however, is universally panned at our table.
Yet I prevail. Like it or not, my loved ones are going to stare at the stuff. At my age, it’s not easy to recreate any part of my long-ago childhood, so I cling to what I can.
Which will be accompanied by slow-cooker stuffing and our one concession to the changing culinary scene: store-bought gravy.
Oh, we all know how to make gravy. On any given Sunday, I can turn out perfect white gravy, the kind that goes with fried chicken and mashed potatoes. I can use pork chop drippings and make a nice brown gravy — unless it’s a holiday. Then it’s always too thick, too thin or lumpy.
But that’s okay. It’s allowed us to create a new tradition for this generation.
Some people bring homemade pumpkin rolls or their prized broccoli-cheese casserole each year. We cheer when my son walks in, because he’s the one who makes the gravy — by opening the can, pouring it in a bowl and sticking it in the microwave.
CATHIE SHAFFER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org