The Good Stuff

Why stuffing tells you more about the cook than the turkey.

Turkeys are turkeys. Sure, you might shell out for a rare-breed heritage bird or a presalted kosher turkey. You might brine it or swaddle it in cheesecloth, but most everyone who celebrates our country’s great nonsectarian holiday (vegetarians and manly turkey fryers excepted) roasts a turkey come Thanksgiving. But stuffing, or dressing as it’s called in the South, is special. Equally essential to the holiday table, it’s a far more expressive medium than turkey. Its bland base of bread or rice invites embellishment, both traditional and irreverent, and in dressing recipes, sausage, nuts, fruit, mushrooms, and shellfish combine in countless permutations. In contrast to the more predictable turkey, stuffing is the frisky, occasionally outlandish, personality of the holiday table.

What kind of stuffing you favor making is part tribal—having to do with your origins—and part vanity—the desire to hear that your stuffing is unlike any other. Some people, and I suspect there are fewer every year, are oyster-stuffing traditionalists. This particular surf-and-turf dish is an old one—dating to the beginning of the 19th century, if not earlier. One might consider it a coastal habit, but, thanks to railroad distribution in the 19th century, oysters, and oyster stuffing, penetrated the middle of the country. Great gastronomical doyenne M.F.K. Fisher argued that it was probably a bigger deal in the middle of the country than along the coasts: “Not every man could buy [oysters], God knows, and a Middle Westerner was even prouder than a man from Down East to have those shell-fish on his feast-day.” Today, unless you’re cooking your great-grandmother’s recipe, as you’ve done for years, an oyster stuffing is a knowing, young-fogey move, like white gloves or a bowtie (even this recipe’s diction is purposely retro). I prefer my mollusks outside the turkey, on ice.

Speaking of traditionalists, of course, the Southern dressing tradition is a fine one, calling for corn bread instead of pasty white bread, which means for a livelier texture and flavor. This is a good choice for the timid improviser, as it’s the simplest of upgrades. But corn bread also invites a certain amount of showboating and regionalizing—adding andouille sausage gives it a Cajun vibe, green chiles offer a Southwestern inflection.

There are those who did not grow up with elaborate holiday tradition but who are eager to compensate with ultratraditional, nearly Dickensian feasts like this one. They probably do best with chestnut stuffing—which can’t help but channel a rosy-cheeked British festivity. It is little surprise that Martha’s official menu boasts a chestnut stuffing made with apples. (I am surprised, however, that a recipe from spare-no-effort-Stewart suggests jarred chestnuts instead of fresh—seems like progress to me.)

Then there are those cooks, full of bravado and big gestures, who favor burly food with lots of spice, meat, and smoke. They are the ones who most likely fry their turkeys (unstuffed, please, for safety’s sake). On the side of such a spectacle, there is no reason to be delicate: While sausage stuffing might overwhelm everything else on the table with its spice and heft, if it’s tasty enough, who cares?

More esoteric cooks are unswayed by bread as a stuffing base and are given to regional idiosyncrasies. Those looking for an even starchier stuffing option may find stolid comfort in the Pennsylvania Dutch potato filling—substituting mashed potatoes for bread. Then there are the Tex-Mex tamale stuffings and rice stuffings, many in a Cajun mode. Wild rice stuffing, on the other hand, is usually graced with dried cherries, cranberries, or apples and is either advocated by people from Great Lakes wild-rice states or those earnest, drawn people who try, usually in vain, to make Thanksgiving a healthier affair. While the dark, chewy rice is nice, I find it better served with gamey meat like wild duck or venison.

I’ve grown up as a fruit-nut stuffing type—semitraditional but not afraid to add a little something mirthful to the mix. My go-to stuffing comes from the long-defunct magazine the Pleasures of Cooking (which was an evangelical effort by Cuisinart), and it’s pretty simple—onions, celery, bread, butter, walnuts, bourbon, and dried apricots. Here’s the recipe, if you’re curious.

It’s not clear what kind of stuffing, if any, was used by settlers at that Plymouth Plantation feast in 1621, which was refashioned by 19th-century sentimentalists into “the First Thanksgiving.” Bread at the event would have been made of corn, not wheat, and perhaps some made it inside the wild fowl—the concept of putting something edible inside the cavity of something else is practically as old as recipes are.

In the only surviving classical cookbook, Apicius proposes stuffing sardines, squid, dormice, hares, and chickens. The book’s recipe for gardener’s-style pig, porcellum hortolanum, shows stuffing at its most byzantine: a pig’s body stuffed with quenelles of chicken forcemeat, finely cut thrushes, fig-peckers, little pork sausages, lucanian sausage, stoned dates, edible bulbs, unshelled snails, mallows, leeks, beets, celery, cooked sprouts, coriander, whole pepper, nuts, eggs, and broth (and you thought turduckens were elaborate). Europeans, particularly the French, embraced the Roman idea of stuffing meat with meat, which led them to the most baroque examples of charcuterie: the galantine, in which a large piece of a boned-out animal—a boar’s head, say, or a whole chicken—was stuffed with the meat paste known as forcemeat, then usually glazed with an opaque chaudfroid sauce. Along these lines, Escoffier, who published Le Guide Culinaire, the canonical guide to modern French cooking, in 1903, had a decidedly fancy approach to stuffed turkey. “Bone out the young turkey as for a galantine and stuff it with very good sausage meat mixed with ¼ dl brandy per 1 kg of sausage meat plus some large dice of ham or bacon and dice of raw truffle. Place a very small and very red ox tongue, wrapped in slices of salt pork fat in the centre of the stuffing.” It seems the impulse to surprise the diner with a hidden treat is fundamental; at the risk of sounding crude, pretty much any animal cavity was, and still is, an invitation for the cook to fill it.

Of course, plenty of cooks today, including me, don’t actually stuff our turkeys. Food safety guidelines recommend cooking the stuffing inside the bird until everything is at least 165 degrees, which will surely overcook your turkey breast, and you’ll more than likely wind up with a soggy, puddinglike stuffing concoction. I like to get my bird in and out of the oven as quickly as possible, and packing it with stuffing slows things down.

Stripped of its original cavity-filling, juice-sopping purpose, stuffing is forced to justify its existence with other vivid flavors. Cooking sites and magazines have responded with portmanteau stuffings that can’t say no to a flavor—spiced raisin-pumpkin bread and mushroom stuffing, or corn bread stuffing with bacon, sweet potatoes, greens, and pecans. Personally, I adhere to a stuffing rule of three—three distinctive ingredients beyond the basics are OK, as long as they are harmonious. Beyond that, it’s too much. But then again, in the Apician tradition, is there really such a thing as too much?