(Guest post by The Better Half)
There is a food connection to this post.
It is, after all, a Thanksgiving post on a food blog.
In fact, if you’ll scroll to the bottom, you’ll find a recipe for chicken & dressing. It’s one of the more unremarkable recipes you’ll ever stumble across. It offers no new twist on this venerable Southern favorite. It contains no unusual ingredients. At first glance, the final product would seem quite bland. And the directions would seem to be given by someone who hasn’t a clue as to how to write a recipe.
And I definitely wouldn’t attempt the recipe, at least without an acute and innate sense of how many cupfuls comprise a “looks right” or how many tablespoons there are in a “’til it tastes the way it’s supposed to.”
The recipe, such as it is, was dictated to me by mom about fourteen years ago.
(Gratuitous and totally self-indulgent aside: This is my favorite photograph of my mom and me. What’s strange is that, save for her shadow, she isn’t even in the photo. I don’t remember a lot of my early childhood, but I remember the taking of this picture with absolute clarity. It was a few days after Christmas in 1965. I was outside late one afternoon, playing on what was left of my and my sister’s rusted-out swing set. My mom came outside and told me that she wanted to take my picture, that she had one shot remaining on a roll of Christmas photos and wanted to take the film to the drugstore to be developed. The snapshot is typical of my mom…always in the background, rarely noticed. I stumbled across the long-forgotten print after my dad’s death in 2006.)
I’m not one of those people who will swear that his mom was the World’s Greatest Cook. In fact, I would be the first to tell you that she was not a particularly good cook. She did, however, have a small quiver of dishes that she perfected through the years. And I will swear that anyone who ever tasted her chicken & dressing, biscuits, banana pudding, and pineapple upside-down cake would tell you that they were the best they ever tasted. At extended family gatherings, potluck dinners, and church socials, no one else dared to bring chicken & dressing to the meeting. They all knew that, at event’s end, their food would sit mostly untouched on the table next to my mom’s empty, virtually scraped-clean dressing pans.
No Thanksgiving would have been the same without it. It’s what made Thanksgiving my favorite holiday, which it remains this day. From my earliest recollections until I graduated from college almost twenty years later, I awakened each Thanksgiving morning to the aroma of onions cooking in chicken broth (more on this later, if you stick around that long).
My mom, a lifelong smoker, suffered for years from heart disease. Following a catheterization in February 1997, her cardiologist confided to me that she wouldn’t live a lot longer. How much time does she have, I asked. Hard to say, he replied. He guessed between six months and a year.
For the majority of my adult years, I lived most of an hour’s drive from my parents and had customarily seen them once a month or so. During the ensuing months after the doctor’s prognosis, however, I made a point of visiting them every Sunday afternoon for a couple of hours. During that time, my mom and I talked more than we had talked in the prior fifteen years combined. We revisited events from childhood, both hers and mine. We dug through picture boxes and photo albums. She told me things I never knew about my aunts, uncles, and grandparents. She explained why she had made certain choices and decisions in life, things that I had never understood.
Somewhere along the way, conversation drifted toward food.
I knew that she wasn’t the type of cook to follow a recipe or to write down much of anything, but I asked her if she could at least talk me through the steps in making her chicken & dressing recipe. She was happy to oblige. I pulled out the canary legal pad that was in my school bag, and we began. What followed was a memorable forty-five minutes, all at once funny, exasperating, and greatly cherished to this day.
“You need a lot of onions.”
“How many? What size?”
“I don’t know what size. But enough to cover this plate in a heaping pile when they’re chopped.”
“So tell me again how much broth I add to the cornbread crumbs.”
“‘Til it looks right.”
“How many cups might that be?”
“I don’t really know. Several, probably.”
“Mama, I can measure cups. I can’t really measure ‘looks right.’”
“Oh. Well. Five? Seven, maybe?”
She kept doubling back on things I had already written down: ”Oh. I forgot to tell you that you need to…”
So I would write…cross out what I had written…draw arrows across the page…you get the idea.
We laughed, and we laughed some more. Because we understood each other on that mother/son wavelength known only to mothers and sons, I finished with a pretty solid understanding of how to prepare the dish. I also captured her recipe for giblet gravy. I think we both knew, on some level, that we wouldn’t spend another Thanksgiving together. As it happened, nine months after the doctor’s prognosis, she died very suddenly two weeks before Thanksgiving 1997.
It was that year that I made my first attempt to duplicate her signature dish.
I must say that I was very impressed with how close the final product was, on the very first try, no less. My dad, sister, and a few other family members would have told you the same.
I’ve made the dish so many times through the years that I no longer need the “recipe.” But whenever I prepare the dish, I always keep the wrinkled, grease-stained page nearby. It makes me feel, on some unexplainable level, that my mom is still around.
For the purposes of this post, I’m not thankful that I had wonderful parents, though they were indeed wonderful. And I’m not thankful that I have such vivid memories that are very much a part of my present life. I’m thankful that, if it’s a given that most of us outlive our parents, I was generously afforded the time, means, and opportunity to say goodbye to both of mine. I didn’t squander the opportunity. I truly have no regrets. And I’m very much aware that many people would envy me.
As far as the recipe is concerned, it’s the one thing that will be on my Thanksgiving table. If I’m the only person to touch it, fine. For our annual Friendsgiving gathering, Julie usually prepares a second type of dressing…something “fun,” as she says…often something with nuts, berries, and exotically-scented something-or-other, for anyone else at the gathering who needs…something else.
Chicken and Dressing
As much as three or four days in advance, prepare a double batch of your favorite cornbread recipe. (Please, for the love of God, don’t use any kind of sweet cornbread. This is an abomination and another post for another time.) Use a food processor to turn the cornbread into ultra-fine crumbs.
Boil a whole chicken to make fresh broth. (Use your own favorite recipe/technique and seasonings.) Remove the chicken from the broth and, when cool, debone. Set the meat aside (or refrigerate, if it will be awhile before you’re ready to use it).
Chop a veritable mountain of onions (4 or 5 large onions). Cook the onions in six to eight cups of broth, until just tender.
Set aside enough cornbread crumbs to fill a rectangular metal baking pan (13 x 9 x 2). Melt a stick of butter and stir into the crumbs.
Add the onion-laden broth to the crumbs until…it looks right. Use your own judgment for just how thick the final product should be. (I’m guessing about 5 or 6 cups.)
Add some chicken to the crumbs, but keep in mind that the meat should compliment the dressing…not the other way around.
Pour the dressing into the pan. Dot the top of the dressing with pats of butter. Bake at 425 degrees until bubbly. Turn on the broiler to allow the surface to brown slightly.
(Notes on seasoning: As any good cook would tell you, season the dish in layers. Add and check the seasoning at every step of the process. The only seasonings to be used for this recipe are salt and pepper…lots and lots of pepper. The final product should be onion-y and peppery. Most people can’t imagine dressing without sage. My mother would require me to hunt you down and tie your ears in knots if you put sage in her dressing.)