Mama’s Cornbread Dressing by Lindley Barnett

Here is a sneak peek at just one offering of our December Issue. I also wanted to share this as this wonderful family wanted you all to have access to a wonderful Thanksgiving offering to those around your table.

Mama’s Cornbread Dressing
by guest writer, Lindley Barnett
Thanksgiving is ripe with opportunity. Opportunity to gather with family and friends. Opportunity to spend time together in the kitchen, at the table, and with a full belly in front of the television. In my family, preparing the Thanksgiving meal is also ripe with opportunity for a full-on kitchen skirmish, and no recipe holds the potential for just such a dust-up as does Mama’s Cornbread Dressing.
“Mama’s,” of course, refers to all the mothers in a long line mothers on my mama’s side of the family, and the usage of the word “cornbread” is redundant, I suppose, because what other kind of dressing is there in the South? Nevertheless, I can still hear the echoes of the Conditt girls, my Mamoo and her sisters, as they argued over this one vital Thanksgiving dish. Dressing runs the risk of a variety of disasters, the least of which includes too salty, too sagey, too brothy, or too dry. The greatest of all dressing offences, however, is for the dressing to be “gummy.” I lived in fear of gummy dressing, imagining that the resulting debacle might end up in the back yard followed by a great Conditt exodus, the screeching of Dodge Darts and Chrysler New Yorkers punctuating the shouts of “I told you sos!” Interestingly, so far as my memory serves, gummy dressing is an old wives tale because I never recall having anything but the perfect accompaniment to roasted turkey, cranberry ice, green bean casserole, and hot buttery rolls. (I purposefully left out the giblet gravy. I never could wrap my head around that!)
I have pages of recipes, scrawled in the various handwritings of the women I love most and have loved most in all the world, but making Mama’s Cornbread Dressing was an education based in practice rather than from following a handwritten recipe. Sitting atop a kitchen stool while watching, listening, and questioning was the way we all learned how to perfect this delicious Thanksgiving staple. As a result, the following recipe is chatty rather than measured.
Cornbread dressing in mama’s kitchen always begins at least a day ahead of time because you have to boil a fat hen for broth. No decent Conditt woman would admit to dressing made with broth from a can or a box, and heaven forbid she choose to skim off the fat! While the broth cools in the refrigerator, make a 10-12 inch iron skillet’s worth of your favorite cornbread recipe. We’re a savory bunch in my family, so no sugar in our cornbread, but if you’re a sweet Southerner, knock yourself out! Crumble the cooled and cooked cornbread into a large green Tupperware bowl. (I hope you have one.) Add a slice or two of stale bread to the mix. If I’m feeling particularly Bon Appetit, I might use a chunk of leftover baguette, but I’ve seen Sandy toss in a slice of plain old crusty white bread, but not more than a cup’s worth. Make sure it’s not fresh bread, though. Remember, beware of gummy dressing! Let the crumbles sit out for at least a day with a tea towel draped over the bowl so that they will continue to dry.
Only then does the real dressing process begin.
On Thanksgiving morning, dice a large onion and three or four celery stalks. My mama usually sautés these aromatics in a wee bit of butter or olive oil until they are barely transparent so that they won’t be crunchy in the finished dish. Toss the vegetables into the cornbread mixture. Crush a palm of dried sage into the mix (maybe even as much as a tablespoon or two) along with several grinds of the pepper mill. This is your dressing base. Now is when the recipe gets a bit tricky.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees at least 90 minutes before you plan to eat. Warm the chicken stock from the day before just enough so that you can pour it into a measuring cup. Beat 6-9 eggs in a small bowl. (Typically, with a 10 inch skillet of cornbread, I would use 6 large eggs). Now stir this mixture into the dressing base and begin by adding 3 or 4 cups of your homemade chicken stock. You’re going to have to go with your good sense here. Uncooked dressing should be about the consistency of the perfect bowl of oatmeal, not too thin, not too thick. Salt to taste based upon the salt in your cornbread recipe and in your chicken stock. Don’t skimp, but if your taste buds or your dietary guru opposes salt, then by all means allow your guests to salt at the table.
Pour the dressing into a deep enough buttered casserole dish so you will be able to give it a stir as it cooks. I have learned at my mama’s knee that this is the key to a dressing that is cooked through and moist, yet has a nice crusty top. Put the dressing in the oven, allowing at least an hour and half baking time. Check the dressing about 30-40 minutes into the baking time, stirring along.
At this point, I have a memory of a gaggle of Conditt sisters and daughters hovering around the oven in deep discussion. Each in turn would grab a spoon and give the dressing a taste. Decisions were made as to salt, texture, and doneness. Keep cooking if it’s too moist.
Add a bit more broth if it seems too dry. Stir and scrape the lovely brown bits from the bottom of the pan to the top as you add the broth, and then let it continue to bake.
After about an hour, give a quick check as to how the rest of the meal is coming along. If the rest of the meal needs a little more time, check the dressing again to make sure it’s not getting too dry. Add more broth and stir it through again if it is needed.
In the end, remember to count your blessings and enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday . . . even if your dressing turns out gummy.

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