Southern cornbread dressing is a Thanksgiving staple -- in my house as well as homes across America. It’s simple, unassuming, and if made right, fills the body and soul with the love of family, remembered and not.
- 8 tablespoons butter
- 1 large Vidalia or Spanish onion
- Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- 3/4 cup water
- 6 cups cubed homemade cornbread
- 1/3 cup fresh sage leaves, about 12, stems removed
- 2 large eggs, beaten
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- It’s dressing, not stuffing, because stuffing is stuffed inside the bird and dressing goes outside. “Is it a Southern thing?” people ask me, and I usually say yes, it is, because that seems to satisfy a lot of questions from Northerners. This difference is the first thing I learned about my mother’s dressing. Other things I learned about her dressing: that she sent a bowl of it every year to my dad, even after they divorced. That she burnt the cornbread a little for those batches. That she claimed she had never been happy a day in her life with him. That I was just like him.
- It might be two onions. And it might even not be a Spanish onion. I once suggested garlic and mom said I was getting fancy. But really, we don’t remember, mom or me. She has an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Early Onset, and things get lost easily, like this recipe for cornbread dressing, or her purse, which she hides from strangers who aren’t there.
She called me once to say, “Michael, someone has replaced all of my furniture with replicas."
“What kind of replicas?” I ask her. Questions are good, I’m told. Challenges are frustrating and frightening.
“Exact. You can’t tell them apart,” she tells me.
“What if you keep them for now, because of how they’re exact? And if they come back for them, we’ll figure that out then.”
“Okay,” she says, before asking, “Who are they?”
- Chop the onion, or onions. I’ve tried both and while it doesn’t make a difference in the taste of the final product, the final product doesn’t taste at all like my mom’s dressing. It is the best dressing that has ever existed. Better even than your mom’s. It is what Thanksgiving has always tasted like on my tongue, and I can't, for the life of me, recreate it. And she, now, at this point, can't either. The only thing that has remained the same, from mom’s recipe locked in her head, and my attempts at facsimile, is how much chopping onions makes me cry.
- Pro Tip: The perfect place to cry, uncontrollably, if you’re looking for one, is on I-5 S, in Oregon, between Exit 27 and Exit 17, toward Ashland and away from Medford, and from your mother, and her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She’ll have done things like introduce you as her nephew to her doctor, or she’ll be genuinely delighted to see you in the morning, but not clear at all about who you are. “Can you stay a while?” she asks, her hands a flutter of cleared spaces and what she remembers of hospitality. “I’m so glad y’all stopped by for a visit. People don’t set with each other any more like they used to. When’s the last time I seen you? How’s your mama?”
- So, you’ve got your chopped onions.
- Those should go, over low heat, in a cast-iron skillet that hasn’t been touched by soap or water. Mom keeps hers on the back porch with the washer and dryer. The porch has a locking door, and sometimes she locks the phantom of a boy from elementary school in there. His name is Gary, a social worker tells me, a boy mom had been mean to once upon a time.
The past and the present aren’t necessary to my mom any more, only regrets, maybe, and memories that haunt her. I keep wondering if she will have regrets about me -- the way she treated me, growing up; “firmly,” she often told company, when they wanted to know why I was so well-behaved -- and if now, years after, she’ll apologize, if not directly to me, then at least about me. Will a young ghost boy named Michael keep her awake at night?
Gary visits now, or this memory of Gary that my mom can’t shake, and she traps him in the laundry room. “He won’t do any wrong in there,” she explains. “Wrong to who?” I ask. “To her,” she says, and points at herself.
- You’ll sweat the onions until translucent. I think it’s at this point you throw the sage leaves in. And some poultry seasoning. I forgot to put that in the list of ingredients. And honestly, I don’t remember us ever having fresh herbs at home, just bottles of McCormick’s. I think we had a couple glass jars from Spice Island, but those were “for special.”
According to my mom, I shouldn’t be explaining this recipe to anyone anyway, in the first place. “Who’s going to do the cooking around here?” she asked last August, when I moved my brother home to help look after her. “Joe Bevel knows how to cook,” I tell her. “He does? Who taught him?” We’re in her kitchen, and she has cleaned out the refrigerator in anticipation of new groceries, because she’s that kind of particular. “I did, I guess,” I say.
“Well that’s good. Because my son Michael can’t cook for shit.”
“I’m Michael, Mama,” I tell her. And she smiles like we’ve just met.
- Your cornbread must be homemade, as in, “Not from a box of Krusteaz unless you want people to think you don’t have time for love.” It’s the only way I know how to make cornbread, so it would stand to reason that she must love me. But this has always been an ironic question for me, from my mom, because I don’t know that we loved each other. Maybe now we do, because who she is now is not who she was then. Who she was then was angry every day: at me, at her life, at our life together, because who I was shifted, often, for her, from son to co-parent of my brother, to excuses at school for the odd bruise here and there. “Good cooking always tells your family you love them.”
- Speaking of family, her new thing is to call me and tell me that someone in the family has died of AIDS. Her voice is always a whisper.
“Michael, you remember your Aunt Cindy, right?”
“She died, recently.”
“Yes, she slept with too many men and that’s what happens.”
Before, before the diagnosis and before Gary and hide-the-purse and the replicated furniture, when I was in my 20s and coming out, she would call regularly to ask if I had AIDS yet. “Not yet, Mama,” I’d say. “Well, you might,” she’d answer.
- Crumble the cornbread, I guess?
- I think you mush everything together at this point. The onions, the cornbread, your feelings of anger and regret, maybe some celery, which I generally hate, but not in stuffing, sort of like I have generally hated my mom, but not now. Not any more. That woman who raised us firmly, who belittled because she never knew what too much love could feel like, who spent one Thanksgiving crying in her bedroom because I told a lie to stay away from home -- that woman, ironically, is a memory for both of us; one that I have to abandon head-on, while she can only experience her in foggy anxieties.
There are eggs in this recipe but I’m pretty sure we never used eggs at home. There’s another ingredient to this cornbread that is just out of reach. I thought it was love. It might be the celery.
Sometimes, when you’re sobbing, uncontrollably, on I-5 S, between Exit 27 and Exit 17, because you’re leaving your mom behind in Oregon while you fly home to Maryland, sobbing with the full throb and thrum of your whole being, a Hummer will pull alongside you and see the amazing Laura Dern faces you’re pulling while you fever and quake with impotent rage, fear, despair, and so much self-focused hate, just such concentrated loathing, because how can you drive away like that? What gives you the right to leave that behind? Because you do think you are leaving that behind, that it’s leave-behindable, but it isn’t, not at all, because as messy as it feels it fits tidily into your heart, and that Hummer, seeing every bitter emotion smeared across your face, will speed breathtakingly away from you, past Ashland, across the border into California, too fast for any grief of yours to catch up to it, but you’ll just be passing mile marker 20; you’ll still be sobbing in your car.
- Let cool 30 minutes. Serves 6.