Today we feature a “Ghost post” from John Clark and Kate Flora’s late mother, A. Carman Clark. Country living writer, journalist, newspaper editor, and, late in life, a mystery writer, Mrs. Clark always had a wry way of looking at tradition.
Sometimes I think an extra question should be added to personnel files, marriage ceremonies and partnership contracts. Namely: What kind of stuffing do you prefer in your Thanksgiving turkey? Stuffing preferences, built up through years of holiday associations, resist compromises.
The best turkey stuffings I’ve ever tasted were made by my friend Everett who financed his college education working in Chinese restaurants. Ev’s cleaver minced celery, onions and mushrooms with rhythmic speed while oysters simmered and butter melted. That man could stuff a bird and whip the kitchen counters back to order in less time than I could cube the bread. A touch of sage and thyme to enhance but not dominate. Sometimes he added chestnuts. Turkey broth or cider to moisten the mixture. Elegant.
The mother of a college friend made the worst stuffing while repeatedly proclaiming that her way was the only way turkey stuffing should be prepared. Piles of dark toast were broken into milk and then wrung dry with twists which could have strangled a tiger. One onion. Never use more than one onion. What she called stuffing looked like chunks of damp plaster and tasted like warm sawdust.
Our Sennebec Hill stuffing developed gradually. The dry bread filling, which I was told good Maine wives were supposed to make, became a bit more moist and flavorful each year as additions were secretly added. Extra onions, sautéed in butter with celery, and several beaten eggs lightened the dressing. Then each year an increased amount of country sausage, cooked, drained, and crumbled, was mixed in with chopped tart apples. I copied Ev’s method of moistening the dressing with broth or cider and added parsley and herbs from the garden. Sometimes I mixed a bit of hot peppers to the portion used to stuff the neck cavity. Guests, accustomed to Southern cornbread and bacon stuffing or Pennsylvania Dutch potato stuffing, take second helpings. I’m thankful for guests with a willingness to try something new.
My friend Molly’s husband didn’t have that quality and that was why one Thanksgiving Molly allowed herself to have a sinking spell. In the Victorian era such spells were known as “having the vapors” — a brief time of weakness during which ladies are unable to carry on routine tasks. That year Molly had her sinking spell none of their children were able to get home for the holiday so she suggested going out to dinner. On Thanksgiving? Absolutely not. They would have turkey and lots of stuffing if he had to cook it himself. He did. Molly had planned on a brief relapse but she languished for four days because it took Herb that long to clean up the kitchen.
Not too many years ago, country turkeys were stuffed before they lost their heads. About six weeks prior to Thanksgiving, the chosen bird was caged to preserve its energies. A diet of nuts, cracked corn, onions and apples was gradually increased until the gobbler became heavy and well-flavored throughout. Children weren’t given these feeding chores. Even a Tom turkey, destined for the holiday dinner, can seem like a pet when it responds to the daily fattening-up routine.
Meanwhile, sage clipped from the herb garden dried in the warming oven with slices of homemade bread. Children shelled out beechnuts. Northern Spy apples ripened on the kitchen counter, onions cured on the attic floor, and the last celery plants were mounded with hay to keep them from freezing.
There’s a sameness to the herb-seasoned dry bread now packaged and sold for stuffings, although using these saves time and mess. I prefer a mixture of whole wheat and white bread, cubed and dried and my own measures of fresh herb seasonings. Years of getting turkeys stuffed and in the oven by 7 a.m. have given me an eye for quantity and proportions. I no longer measure but I protect my image by making sure there will be enough stuffing to put into post-Thanksgiving sandwiches for 10 adults. If that amount won’t fit inside the body and neck cavities (leaving room to expand), I bake the extra in a separate casserole.
Each November, wherever I go, I ask for and listen to tales of memorable stuffings, the tastes and textures of the dressings others prepare or expect to find baked in the bird. Some grandmothers toss in a cup of chopped cranberries saying that these cut the fatty taste of a big turkey. Many families look forward to the textures which chopped walnuts, peanuts or pecans add to the stuffing. James Beard once published a recipe for a moist, meaty dressing which incorporated a pound of ground fresh pork stir-fried with onions and mushrooms before being mixed with coarsely ground dried bread, chopped parsley, and hot broth.
One neighbor showed me how she slides her hands between the turkey’s skin and breast and then pushes a layer of stuffing in to help keep the white meat moist. Another said she roasts both turkeys and chickens with the breast side down so the juices flow into the white meat. Both ideas are worth trying. These turkey conversations, at Thanksgiving or when the markets advertise special low prices, include comparisons of open basting vs. foil-wrapped birds, timing, and favorite family recipes for using leftovers.
I’ve tried many methods for roasting turkeys. The children and their families come to the farm for Thanksgiving so we need a 23 pound bird. Wrapping such a creature in heavy duty foil and placing it on a rack is easiest for me. Another keep-it-simple idea for this holiday is thawing turkey “juice” from the last bird and making the gravy ahead of time. Call it riding the gravy train. I’d rather spend time with my grandchildren than fiddle with gravy.
Someday I’m going to slip the carcass of the Thanksgiving turkey into a trash bag and haul
it off to the dump. Or ask someone to carry it away so I can’t change my mind enroute and bring the bones home for turkey soup. I’d like to be able to yell, “Hey, gulls, you pick this one. I’ve done it for 44 years. It’s your turn.” But each year I bring forth the lobster kettle and face the whole mess again.
Even after the midnight and breakfast turkey sandwiches, the carcass of a 23 pound bird yields enough meaty pieces of many winter meals, from Cornish pasties to gobbler chili. Through the years, I’ve filled a file with recipes for using left-over turkey. Sloppy Tom, a variation of the Sloppy Joe hamburger and tomato sauce mixture. Gobbler chili, made with hot peppers, garlic, kidney beans and tomato sauce is welcome after too many meals of bland turkey. With lots of tender, crisp vegetables, julienne-cut turkey fits into oriental meals flavored with ginger, soy sauce and a touch of molasses. I freeze broccoli stems, Swiss chard and kohlrabi for these quick stir fries.
The list goes on and on. The motto, “Waste not, want not,” embroidered and framed, hung on the walls of most homes when I was growing up during the Great Depression. I think it’s etched in my brain. So, although I have the urge to be a wastrel, a turkey carcass pitching wastrel, I still crack the bones for the stew pot and try new recipes for using the meat and the broth. By January, I’ve forgotten the mess and can be thankful for the holiday bird’s contributions to a fine Armenian pot pie with whole wheat pastry crust.
And now, dear readers…what kind of stuffing or dressing does YOUR family prefer? Cornbread? Oysters? Wild rice? And do you have a relative who was absolutely certain her way was best?
And here’s a family secret: Once, on Thanksgiving, John made the turkey and forgot to make stuffing. Many years later, he still gets anxious calls ahead of time, reminding him to make stuffing.
They all – most all – sound good, but we have to have the old celery, onion, sage, bread stuffing or I get howls! We have between 25-30 relatives each year sometime around Thanksgiving. A fresh turkey is moister than the frozen and thawed birds we think and order one from a local farm each year.
Whatever we have it is really all about family.