Thursday, November 6, 2014

It's a Southern Thing by Gail Roughton

Hey, y’all!  Well, Thanksgiving’s near and this Thanksgiving’s really special at my house.  My youngest child is coming home.  He hasn’t been home since September, 2013.  He’s a Navy Corpsman and his specialty training is Field Medic for the Marines.  Because Lord knows he wouldn’t pick something safe like pharmacy or x-ray or lab tech or anything like that.  So this Thanksgiving I’m pulling out all stops.  And the highlight of Thanksgiving (food that is, people are the real highlight of Thanksgiving, we all know that) at our house is dressing. My family loves dressing.  One particular type of dressing.  Miss Emma’s dressing. 

Miss Emma – and please be advised that in the South, all ladies not your mother or your aunt who are some years older than you are addressed as “Miss”, just as all men not your Daddy or your uncle who are some years older than you are addressed as “Mr.” – was the office mother of the Macon, Georgia law firm of where I’ve worked for twenty-one years.  When I first met Miss Emma, she was a very young and spry 74.  In fact, she drove a stick shift and listened to a rock station on the radio.  I helped spearhead a special birthday celebration for her 75th birthday.  And 85th, 90th , and 91st.   At every one of those birthday celebrations, I gave the same toast, a quote from the Wizard of Oz to the Tin Man:  “Hearts are not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” 

Miss Emma was a true Southern lady with a strict work ethic and enough love to encompass the world, including every person who ever set foot through the firm doors, whether attorney, bookkeeping staff, paralegal, secretary, law clerk, receptionist, runner, copy clerk.   And pretty much everybody else she ever met.  Her heart was big enough to hold all of us and have plenty of room for newcomers.

Not one for excess sentimentality, she showed her love in concrete ways. Like cooking.   And believe me when I tell you this – Miss Emma could cook.   The break room was fragrant with the smells of fresh baking more mornings than not. Her pound cakes were legendary.  I can still smell the long pans of peach cobbler, baked that morning and still streaming steam.  In the afternoons, a block of cream cheese sometimes took up duty by a plate of crackers and an open jar of her homemade green pepper jelly.  That’s a southern thang, y’all.  Cream cheese and pepper jelly.

She’d collected her recipes years before into a big black notebook, divided into categories by divider tabs. One of my friends made a copy of that notebook when Miss Emma finally retired for good at 92, as well as one for herself and one for me.  Melody made a copy of her copy and gave it to my daughter as a wedding present.  She inscribed it “From Melody and Miss Emma.  She’d want you to have it.”  Her church had the recipes printed in a book and sold them with proceeds going to one of Miss Emma’s special Church projects, but  we prefer our own copies of the original wherein we can still see the notes in her own handwriting:  “Very good”; “Bake at 425 instead of 400”; “Add ½ cup of butter rather than ¼”. 

And so without further ado, because I get teary-eyed when I remember Miss Emma, I present Miss Emma’s Southern Cornbread Dressing, exactly as she wrote it, which is to say, as if she was standing over your shoulder telling you exactly what to do.  It’s the only dressing I make.

(With Turkey or Hen) – Serves about 8

2 cups crumbled stale cornbread
2 to 2-1/2 cups crumbled dry white bread (such as leftover biscuits or rolls – biscuits are better)
1 onion chopped fine
2 or 3 stalks of celery chopped fine (about ½ to ¾ cup)
½ stick melted butter or margarine
3 eggs, beaten slightly
4 to 5 cups turkey or chicken stock (after skimming off the grease –see note below)
1-1/2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
1-1/2 tsp. poultry seasoning
(**Gail’s addition:  1 ½ tsp. sage)

Preheat oven to 425.  Mix breads, stock, beaten eggs and seasonings.  In the meantime, in a shallow frying pan, melt the butter/margarine and partially cook the onion and celery till it is just limp; then add the whole bit to the first mixture and stir well. This should be soft and runny, about the consistency of cake batter or very thick soup – this is the secret of good dressing, as it will dry out as it cooks.  After you make this a few times, you will be able to tell about the consistency.  Use a shallow pan for baking – a 9 x 13 size, or two smaller sizes – as this should be a rather thin layer.  I grease the pan with butter first.  After about 15 to 20 minutes, I take a cooking fork and run through it and sort of stir it up and then let it continue baking about another 15 to 20 minutes.  Or, you can leave it alone and let it bake smooth – then cut into squares.  Of course, you must have giblet gravy with this.  If you don’t know how to do that, I will be glad to tell you if you will give me a call. (Note from Gail:  That’s Miss Emma talkin’, not me.  I’m not chopping and boiling giblets and have not a clue how to make giblet gravy.  The store-bought turkey gravy works just fine for me.)

NOTE:  As to the stock, I always pour the stock up after baking a turkey or after cooking the giblets (neck, gizzard, heart and liver) and let it get cold in the refrigerator and remove the fat from the top.  Then I put that in the freezer to save to make dressing and gravy the next time I bake a turkey.  Otherwise, you have the problem of baking your turkey ahead of time and not having time to prepare the stock.  It really is too greasy if you don’t remove the fat.  (Note from Gail:  Cans of chicken broth work well also.)

For Oyster Dressing:  Simply add up to a cup of chopped oysters to the batter before baking.

If you don’t mind eating dressing and gravy two times in a row, it’s nice to bake only half of the above and put the balance in the refrigerator and bake it fresh the next day.  Or you can half the whole thing to begin with. (Note from Gail:  Or in the case of my family, you can double it.)

Find Gail Roughton's Country Justice and all her titles here: