As long as I can remember, my mother’s cornbread dressing has held a prominent place at our Thanksgiving table. This year will be no exception.
I am not sure that a written recipe exists for her divine concoction. I know there are onions and celery and slivers of chicken involved. There is chicken broth and maybe a few spices thrown in for good measure. In any event, her cooking could win blue ribbons, and then some.
There are times when I feel ashamed that after all these years, my sisters and I still depend on our mother to make the cornbread dressing. But the feeling doesn’t last long, because the truth of the matter is that as long as Mother is around, and can get around (and I hope it is a very long time), I will continue wanting her to make the cornbread dressing. She wouldn’t have it any other way. It is her dish, and besides, nobody can make it like she can.
There was that one year when I attempted to. Actually, it was a joint effort with one of my sisters. I don’t recall why my parents couldn’t join us that Thanksgiving, but there we were, on our own, and Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without Mother’s cornbread dressing. Somehow, we would have to get beyond our fear of failure and just do it.
Several weeks before the big day, I called Mother on the telephone to get a summary of the dressing preparation. While she rattled off the ingredients, I wrote down every word she said. It sounded easy enough, but that was before she got to how much chicken broth to add before it goes into the oven. At that point, Mother seemed to do a lot of hemming and hawing.
“Would that be a cup, a pint, a quart… what?” I asked her.
“Well, you really just have to go by how it looks in the pan,” she said. “You don’t want it too dry, but you don’t want it too wet either.”
I hurriedly scribbled down the words: “how it looks in pan, not too dry, not too wet.” Despite my calm demeanor, my palms started to sweat.
“It will have a certain consistency to it when you stir it,” Mother offered, as if that bit of information would help me out considerably.
“A certain consistency?” I suddenly remembered how Mother taught me to make grits, using a very similar principle.
“Right. It will have, you know…. a certain feel to it when you stir it.”
Recapping everything I had written, I said, “OK, Mother. I just hope we can pull this off.”
“Oh! You will!” she assured me.
Bless her heart. She really believed that.
Despite our enthusiasm for the project, the cornbread dressing my sister and I put together that year was a far cry from Mother’s. It was fit for human consumption, as I recall, but I remember it as being a little too wet, a lot too bland, too much of this and not enough of that.
To top it off, there were no rave reviews from the men folk, which I took as a significant sign. And today, my husband denies that we ever made the dressing. Says if we had made it, he would remember it, and he doesn’t remember it.
My point exactly. Edible, but not too memorable.
One of these years, I have pledged to give Mother’s cornbread dressing another try. But not this year. This year, I will do my usual sinful sweet potato casserole, topped with a gooey topping and crunchy pecans. And there will be my famous gelatin salad that my husband refuses to go through the holidays without. My sisters will prepare their scrumptious specialties, as only they can. And you already know what Mother will do.
As we gather around our Thanksgiving table, my father will say a few words about the season. We will join hands and offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the one who makes it all possible. And then, somebody will say, “Pass the dressing, please.”
This essay first appeared in The Dallas Morning News. All rights reserved.