Southern-Style Cornbread Dressing
by Keely Durham
You Yankees don’t know shit about dressing.
It’s why, as a Southerner with a father from Macon, Georgia and a mother from the bowels of New Jersey, I have never been to Jersey for Thanksgiving. It’s why, no matter how many other Thanksgiving dinners my parents and I have had to suffer through, my dad would still get in the kitchen at some point over the holiday break and cook up an amazing gut-busting meal with collard greens, sweet potato casserole (topped with pecans, not marshmallows, duh), cornbread dressing, cornbread on the side and cornbread for dessert. Yes. Cornbread. For dessert.
Sure, turkey has always been the traditional centerpiece of, um, Turkey Day, but when you think about it, the best part of the meal is the dressing. It’s the ultimate comfort food. It’s carby, sagey (“back off, basil, I gots this” — sage), moist on the inside yet slightly toasty-crunchy on the outside (something you can’t get, by the way, when you bastardize it by shoving it up a turkey’s ass and calling it stuffing). Dressing is the fries of Thanksgiving dinner, the reason you always order the burger or sandwich instead of the ravioli at a restaurant. Why else are gravy or cranberry sauce also holiday requirements? Because even the best turkey is lackluster when up against a perfectly-crafted hunk of cornbread dressing.
Oh, wait. I’m sorry. You’ve never experienced cornbread dressing? Silly Northerner. While you’ve been up there in New York City working in the LIBERAL MEDIA and putting WHITE BREAD in your dressing (really? a pack of smokes are, like, twelve dollars and they’ve outlawed trans fats, but your nanny state won’t protect you from Wonder bread, which is supposed to be our thing anyways and COME ON you may as well just use paste instead), we’ve been down here, swilling moonshine and noodling and shit while fine-tuning the best part about having to be with a bunch of people you should love because they’re you’re family but you can’t really because you don’t see them very often and they kinda of make you uncomfortable.
So, anyway. Cornbread. You’ve at least had that, right? Let’s look up a typical Yankee cornbread recipe:
• 1 1/4 cups yellow cornmeal
• 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1/4 cup granulated sugar
Sugar? What is it with you Yanks that you have to make a perfectly decent savory side dish sweet? You don’t put sugar on your grits (seriously DO NOT put sugar on your grits — it’s not Cream of Wheat, which, ew, oatmeal exists for a reason), and you certainly don’t put sugar in your in your cornbread. If you want it sweet, you slather it in butter, pour cane — no, not maple — syrup on it and eat it for dessert (told you).
Here’s a lovely and very traditional recipe. I use olive oil instead of bacon drippings, because I’m a vegetarian (we do exist down here!), but you can do whatever. Also, feel free to use yellow cornmeal if you can’t find white. Do take heed to the author’s note about using a cast iron skillet — it’s seriously not the same without it. You get this awesome crunch on the bottom that you just can’t get otherwise (once again, that good ol’ textural variation). My dad gave me my skillet, which is probably about eighty years old and I think was given to him by his family’s nanny/housekeeper, who was black and from whom he learned everything he knows about cooking soul food. Also, my dad apparently grew up on the set of “Beulah.”
So, you have your quality Southern cornbread. Now find a large mixing bowl and crumble up the cornbread into large-ish chunks. Now that your skillet’s free, put it back on the stove with about two tablespoons of butter and sweat a large chopped onion, about a cup-and-a-half of chopped celery and a large chopped bell pepper (otherwise known as the Holy Trinity, and it’s called that for a reason), until the onions are translucent and the celery and pepper are soft. This will take a few minutes, because you have to do it on low to medium heat so you don’t burn those fuckers, so you may want to get in a more Southern mood by re-watching the banjo scene from Deliverance. Did you know that Billy Redden, who played Lonnie the creepy-looking banjo kid, was tracked down by Tim Burton in Clayton, Georgia to play a banjoist in Big Fish, even though Redden never knew how to play the banjo in real life? Wikipedia is a great thing!
When the onions and celery are ready, dump them in the bowl, along with a couple of eggs. Add a bunch of stock (vegetable (herbivores fret not, it’ll still taste delish) or poultry), like three cups perhaps, enough to make the cornbread really, really moist, but like itty-bitty pools of broth moist, not submerged cornbread icebergs drenched. Mix in a couple tablespoons of sage (dried is fine, but fresh is best) and salt and pepper to taste.
Dump your mixture back into the skillet. You’ll probably have a good bit left over, which, yay! You can cook some more later! Or, if you had to go purchase a skillet because you didn’t have a appropriately-bestowed one like yours truly, maybe you were smart enough to buy a set of three. Now you can use the little one for the rest of the mixture and cook it all at once. Bake for a half-hour or so at 350, or until the top is a nice golden brown color. Slice and serve.
Congratulations, Cletus! You’re all done, and it was so easy! Now go reward yourself with a Bud and a little Hank Williams before it’s dinner time. You’ve earned it for not subjecting your guests to some Stove Top bullshit again. Happy Yanksgiving!
Keely Durham lives in Atlanta but still refuses to say “y’all” even though it’s really, really tempting down here.
Illustration by Susie Cagle.