Dressing Traditions Collide at Thanksgiving

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Host Debbie Elliott shares her holiday angst about preparing Thanksgiving dinner far from her family in the South. Her dilemma centers around the cornbread dressing.


If you're like me, this is a weekend that's full of lists and tough decisions. It all starts with the Thanksgiving menu - the turkey, to brine or not to brine, mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes, fresh cranberry relish or the jiggly stuff from the can. My dilemma is the dressing. Up until last year, I've always lived close to family and spent just about every Thanksgiving at someone else's dining table - my mother's, my aunt's or my mother in law's, all skilled cooks and decision makers ready to make both mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes to keep us all happy. My biggest responsibility was to bring the rolls and a squash casserole.

Which gets me to the dressing. This southern born and bred woman has never made cornbread dressing. Never. Last Thanksgiving my mother-in-law sent a frozen pan of hers from Alabama. And at Christmas, my mother brought hers up from Memphis. That's the meal where my turkey caught on fire, another tale for the Turkey Hotline. But I digress. So here I am, Thanksgiving just days away, faced with the daunting task of making the dressing. My mom and Aunt Diane have passed along their recipe. It comes from my grandfather and conjures up fond childhood memories of some of his other Thanksgiving specialties, like pickled peaches and homemade fig preserves. My mother in law doesn't have a recipe. Making dressing just comes natural for her. She's told me how to make it, no measurements included. Just be sure to add enough turkey stock so it won't come out too dry, she says. Her dressing is never too dry. And it's always topped with the most perfect giblet gravy with tiny little slivers of boiled eggs.

My dilemma is, do I stick with family tradition, and if so, which one? Or do I break out on my own and make something new, an oyster dressing maybe? Or chestnut stuffing? One colleague here warns me that it might not be so simple as a choice of dressing. Thanksgiving is a time when food has meaning. It's about memories, familiar flavors and maintaining traditions. Maybe my best bet is to make one of each. Better add more onions and celery to the grocery list.

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