Most holidays are a time for food and fellowship with family and friends. When I think about the holidays, I think about my late grandmother’s house. A small, white house, which wasn’t too fancy but filled with love. During the holidays we ate at the dining room table and there were unspoken assigned seats. With Thanksgiving coming up, I would like to write a tribute to my late grandmother.
“Two-thirds biscuit and one-third cornbread.”
Those were some of my grandmother’s last conscious words to me. Three years ago at the beginning of November, my grandmother was in ICU at a hospital in town. She had fallen and broken her hip in October. The ER doctor had told us that most people her age, 89 years old, only lived four weeks after an injury like that. My sisters, cousin, and I were in disbelief because she had always said she would live to be 100.
During that time, she had survived hip surgery, brain surgery after her medical team found a brain bleed and had made it to rehab at a local nursing home. We thought she was on the mend. But shortly after being transferred there, she got pneumonia and was sent back to the hospital. Soon she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
We were her four grandchildren, her caretakers since our grandfather had passed in 2009. Slowly over time our role had shifted from the children requesting she make our favorite desserts and begging to sop the bowl to daily check-ins, multiple visits to doctors’ offices during the week, and the grocery trips, oh, the grocery trips. Kroger for weekly groceries, IGA for eggs, GMC for meats and occasionally Piggly Wiggly in Lindale to take advantage of a sale.
But in her ICU room on a late November night, reality began to set in, Thanksgiving was around the corner and my grandmother, my world, the glue to our family, the place we celebrated every holiday at was about to leave this Earth. I started to panic, I realized I had no idea how to make her dressing. The perfect mixture of biscuits and cornbread, not too wet and not too dry. She would make a regular pan for the family and a smaller version omitting the onions and celery because my little sisters did not like the texture. Sitting next to her, listening to the horrible noises of pneumonia and congestive heart failure, I turned on the voice recorder of my phone and asked, “Grandmother, how do you make your dressing?”
She stopped and stared at me catching her breath after each word. “Two-thirds biscuit and one-third cornbread… (breath) chopped onion and celery… (breath and gurgle) … sage… an egg… good chicken broth.”
The next day we brought her home on hospice care, the following day she went in and out of consciousness, then on Nov. 9 she passed away. And along with her, and all our late grandmothers, went the historical knowledge of the recipes they never wrote down because they knew them by heart and by hand, using phrases like two-thirds biscuit and one-thirds cornbread to describe them. What in the heck did that even mean?!
Depending on where you grew up in America, the staple side dish on Thanksgiving has many names like stuffing and filling. Some recipes include stale white bread, cornbread, breadcrumbs, or a mixture. Other recipes include sausage, apples, chestnuts, or oysters. Residents of the Deep South began referring to stuffing as dressing just before the Civil War. Biscuits were always a staple in Southern homes, so naturally day-old biscuits began showing up in the Southern recipes for dressing.
This is my third year making dressing on my own; the first year I stumbled through what two-thirds biscuit and one-third cornbread meant as I tried to recreate what I thought grandmother’s recipe might be. It tastes good, and it’s close, but ultimately just not the same as grandmother’s. It probably never will be.
Today, there are so many times that I want to pick up the phone and ask how she made so-and-so. We always wanted to document family recipes so we could archive them and pass them down, but time got away from us. My advice to anyone who loves a family dish is to stop and take the time to learn the history of the dish, how to make the recipe, and try practicing making it while your loved ones are still around. You will not regret it.
My Southern Dressing
2/3 biscuits (I place frozen biscuits into two 9-inch cake pans and bake as directed)
1/3 cornbread (I make one 9-inch cast iron pan of cornbread following the recipe on the bag of cornmeal)
Onion (I use one bag of frozen, chopped onions)
Celery (I chop 3-4 stalks of celery into the same size as the pre-chopped onions)
Chicken broth (I use a box, which is 4 cups)
Salt, pepper, and sage to taste
After baking the biscuits and cornbread (could be done the day before), preheat oven to 350 degrees. Once cooled, crumble the breads into a very large bowl. It should look like coarse sand. My little sister uses the blender to crumble hers. I like to use my hands because I feel connected to the generations before me. Add bag of frozen onions. Begin to chop 3-4 stalks of celery, by the time you have finished chopping, the onions will have begun to thaw. Add salt, pepper, and dry sage. Mix these ingredients by hand until well incorporated. Add the eggs and pour the chicken broth over the dry mixture and continue mixing with hands. At this point it should feel moist. I stop and season one last time with salt, pepper, and sage. Evenly spread dressing mixture into a 9 x 13 baking dish. Top with pats of butter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, or until golden brown and not too dry.
Crystal L. Edenfield