Food. Is there another word in the Southern English Dictionary that stirs as much emotion in us? I doubt it. Here in Dixie, we console our loved ones with it. We console ourselves with it. We celebrate with food. We entertain with food. We eat when we’re bored, and we eat when we’re excited. Food, and its skillful preparation, are as much an art form to us Southerners as are painting and music.
Perhaps that’s why Thanksgiving is my second most favorite holiday of the year. I know, Thanksgiving is about being thankful for the bounty, no matter how big or how small. But let’s not kid ourselves, somehow we’ve figured out how to say “thank you” by preparing and consuming a meal large enough to feed Rhode Island for a week, and I like it.
Every family has its traditions, and recipes for the Big Day are no exception. In my family, the secret recipe has always been the cornbread dressing. And that’s dressing mind you, not stuffing. There is a difference. Ask a New Yorker about cornbread dressing, and what you’ll get in return is a blank stare. Or a question about grits.
For many years, up until she became too sick to do it, my mother was the chief cook of the Thanksgiving meal. Her cornbread dressing was legendary, and my father was its number one fan. When my mother died, I became the reluctant chief cook. I was all of seventeen years old, so let’s just say that those first experimental years were dangerous ones, at best. I remember slightly underdone turkeys, turkeys with mystery objects left inside them during the roasting process, cakes that had to be hauled to the table on a hand truck and pies that had to be eaten with a straw. But the dressing was always perfect.
My dad taught me how to make cornbread dressing just like my mother had always made it. There are surprisingly few ingredients in it; the trick is to use just the right amounts of each. Dad paid particular attention to the sage. He liked a lot of sage, so much of it that the dressing was practically green before baking.
And then, there was the gravy. Gravy is a mystery to me: part science, part art, part heart disease - but have mercy, do we love our gravy down here. I can make all kinds of the stuff, with the single exception of turkey gravy. I have seen people over the years put everything from eggs to giblets to year-old grease in turkey gravy. To be honest, I had no idea there was an actual use for the giblets. I thought those packets were hidden inside the turkey to serve as a test, one that separates novice cooks from the pros. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I even know what a giblet is.
Gravy, it seems, is just as important in some families as is the dressing. Right after my husband and I got married, we hosted the big family Thanksgiving dinner. We were so excited, so much in love (still are), so happy to open our new home we’d made together to the extended family. Thanksgiving Day was beautiful, and the preparation of the meal was a fun, joint effort, with my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law each preparing their specialties. And just before it was time to serve the meal, it was time to make the gravy. Both my of my sisters-in-law went for the pan at the same time, and it was clear that there was going to be a power struggle over who would win that honor. My sister-in-law from Ohio won the battle, as her personality is just a bit more, shall we say, assertive than the other one.
There were tears that year (yes, as a result of the gravy skirmish), and while we enjoyed a fabulous meal in the company of family, there was an unspoken undertone to the conversation. Battle lines had been drawn, and every year that we were together from there on would see that battle re-enacted. Sometimes this one would win, and sometimes that one. I never got into the fray because, and this is the first time I’ve ever confessed this to anyone but my husband, I can’t make turkey gravy. Every time I’ve attempted it, the result is a lumpy, translucent, gloppy mess easier sliced than ladled.
I buy turkey gravy. There. I said it. I buy jars of turkey gravy from the supermarket. I bring the jars home and surreptitiously empty them into a plastic bowl. At just the right time before the big meal on Thursday, I slip the bowl out of the refrigerator, put the gravy in a saucepan, and heat it up. I tear pieces of turkey and sprinkle them into the store-bought gravy, and voila. It’s a hit every year. For some strange reason though, I feel a little ashamed. My dressing is another matter entirely; it’s fabulous, and I give my mom (and my dad) credit for that.
As I recall, my dad never once complained about any of the meals I cooked during those years of my mother’s illness or after, and certainly not the holiday meals. He ate whatever I put in front of him, and he did it with a smile. As he got older, he would supervise my dressing preparation with a little grumpier attitude, but that was true of everything he did as he got older. He lived to be 93 years old, so that’s something.
This year, we will have all four of our children together for Thanksgiving, and for the first time, we will have our precious little 7-month-old granddaughter with us, as well. We’ll also have my husband’s elderly mom with us, so we’ll have several generations together – a house full. I will cook for days, and the girls will each prepare and bring their own specialties. And after the meal is eaten, my husband and I will sit together, satisfied, watching and listening. Even now, when our children are all together, their conversation is fascinating and entertaining. This year, there will be the giggles and coos of a beautiful baby girl added to the mix. I am so excited I can hardly stand it.
I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, that the gravy isn’t that big a deal. The dressing, on the other hand, now that’s another story.
Carole Townsend is a Gwinnett author and freelance writer. She writes about family, from both an outlandish and poignant perspective. Her newest book, MAGNOLIAS, SWEET TEA AND EXHAUST (July 2014, Skyhorse Publishing) takes a look at NASCAR from a Southern suburban mom’s perspective. She is currently writing her fourth book. Carole has appeared on local and national news and talk shows, including CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates. When she’s not writing, Carole travels throughout the region, speaking to various civic and literary groups, and advocating for the health and well-being of the family, particularly women and children. For more information, visit www.caroletownsend.com.