The dish that will be on my family’s Thanksgiving table until the end of time is my mother’s Southern cornbread dressing.

Why? It’s my father’s favorite. If he were on death row, his last meal would include a giant portion of this dressing, smothered in homemade gravy.

Many’s the year I flew home at Thanksgiving armed with stuffing recipes (we call it dressing in the South) from fancy food magazines that included ingredients like sausage, apples, pecans, pears and all kinds of herbs. Yet, no matter what masterpiece I put on the table, my father always asked my mother to make some of her down-home cornbread dressing as well. To please me, he would dish up a small spoonful of my stuffing to put on his plate, but it was usually still there when dinner was over. Sometimes it hurt my feelings, but after it happened umpteen times, I got over it.

As my brother and sister raised their own families in different parts of the country and we started spending more Thanksgivings apart, I began to crave that cornbread dressing whenever the fourth Thursday in November rolled around. If I couldn’t be in Tennessee, this dish at least made my tastebuds feel at home.

Learning how to make it, however, was a challenge. My mother learned from her mother, and she’s not sure who taught my grandmother. I can pretty much make it myself now with no recipe, but being the overly fastidious, can’t-make-a-mistake person that I am, having a recipe in hand is comforting.

So here’s how a phone call to my mother goes. I ask her how much onion to add, and she says, “It depends on how much onion you want.”

How much salt? She guesses a tablespoon, which seems like a lot. “I just sprinkle some in.”

Magazines tell you to bake something until the top is golden brown. My mother’s directions: “You just have to watch.”

The recipe calls for white cornmeal, which Southerners prefer but is interchangeable with yellow cornmeal. As little as five or 10 years ago, I searched Maine grocery stores in vain for white cornmeal, finally tracking down some Martha White at the Shaw’s in Falmouth. Now, lots of other brands are sold here. You can get regular or self-rising white cornmeal; my mother always uses the regular because … well, that’s just the way she’s always done it.

The other thing you have to know about this dressing is it contains more rubbed sage than you’ve probably ever eaten in your life. My father likes a lot of it in his dressing, and my mother always has him taste it before she puts it in the oven. How much are we talking about? If it’s a small container, my mother says, “use most of it.”



To make the cornbread, you can follow the directions on just about any package of white cornmeal. My mother prefers the Martha White brand, so that’s the recipe I use. The cornbread can be made a day or two ahead. I usually double the recipe because leftovers freeze well.


1 egg

13/4 cups buttermilk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 cups white corn meal

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Combine all ingredients and pour into a 9-inch cast iron skillet or an 8- by 8-inch baking pan. (I have also used a 9-inch round cake pan.) If using a cast iron skillet, first add a couple tablespoons of shortening to the pan and heat in the oven for a few minutes. When the shortening has melted and the pan is hot, pour in the cornbread batter. Bake for 20-25 minutes.


1 recipe Cornbread

1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 to 2 stalks celery, chopped (about 1/2 cup)

1 small onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)

Cooked giblets, chopped into small pieces (optional but they add great flavor)

At least 1 quart turkey broth, plus broth and drippings from your roasted turkey

1 teaspoon salt

Rubbed sage to taste

1 (16-ounce) bag stuffing mix

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter a 81/2- by 11-inch baking dish.

Crumble the cornbread into a big bowl. In a medium-sized frying pan, heat the oil, then sauté the celery and onion just until soft (no need to brown them), 5 to 8 minutes. Add to the cornbread. If you’re not using all your giblets to make gravy, add them to the dressing mixture now.

Add turkey broth, along with drippings, to the cornbread until it reaches the consistency of wet cement (trust me). Add salt and sage to taste. (Do not be timid with the sage. It’s hard to overdo it in this recipe. When I double the recipe, I use an entire 1/2-ounce bottle.) Mix in about half the stuffing mix. (Save the leftovers for another use.)

Pour the dressing into the prepared baking dish and bake for 30-45 minutes, until the top is lightly browned.

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