Many people grow up thinking the whole world stuffs Thanksgiving turkey the way their families do. And then they acquire in-laws and, along with them, the terrible knowledge that the whole world does not. Suddenly there’s a weighty question of whether to put in corn bread or chestnuts or oysters.
The most widespread American stuffing is bread mixed with herbs (typically onions, celery, parsley and sage), but over the years the Food section has also proposed an “old-fashioned” one adding wild rice, mushrooms, sausage and turkey liver; a Puerto Rican picadillo that includes olives, capers and applesauce; a Chinese stuffing of glutinous rice, Chinese sausage, soy sauce and water chestnuts; an Indian rice and lentil stuffing; and one of potatoes, sour cream, Italian sausage, chanterelle mushrooms and juniper berries.
We’ve had a stuffing as simple as chopped-up tamales. We’ve even put a turkey in the oven with nothing inside it but an onion, a carrot and a stalk of celery, just to perfume the meat.
Still, we were astonished at the variety of stuffings that crowded our mailbox when we invited readers to submit their favorite recipes.
Thanksgiving is probably the most traditional meal of the year, and some recipes were proudly described as four or five generations old, but it became clear that quite a few people experiment relentlessly on their turkey stuffing--possibly as a result of those wider horizons that come along with in-laws.
So in addition to a simple challah-based bread stuffing and a traditional corn bread stuffing, we singled out a chicken liver stuffing, an apple and homemade sausage stuffing, one with apples, cranberries and a bit of lemon zest, a mushroom-pecan model, an Italian stuffing of spinach and salami and (our tasters’ favorite) one loaded with fruits, herbs and water chestnuts.
On the other hand, though our tasters were attracted by exotic stuffings, it’s clear that they retain a certain traditionalism. Our eight winners might throw in prunes, water chestnuts or Cognac-scented homemade sausage, but all but one of them includes both onions and celery.
Every stuffing has a story, of course.
“This is my mother’s old family recipe,” says Carole George de Mauregne of her Texas Corn Bread Dressing. “She was raised in Floresville, a little town about 50 miles southeast of San Antonio. It’s got a population of about 5,000 today. The Georges have been there quite a while; my great-grandfather bought the ranch I grew up on right after the Civil War.”
Virginia Hambro created her own recipe, Ginny’s Holiday Stuffing: “I just got tired of the plain style. I kept adding ingredients, and my family kept nodding, until it reached this point. Now they’ve said, ‘Stop messing with it.’
“I’m a tinkerer. I do that with a lot of things, like my stew. Finally my husband said, ‘Don’t touch this stew again.’ ”
For her Challah Stuffing, Sarah Knetzer says, “I took an old, old Betty Crocker recipe from the ‘50s, and over the years I gradually Jewish-ized it. Is that a word?”
Janet Burgess’ Sausage and Apple Stuffing fell into her lap: “I got that about 20 years ago from the manager of a copy store where I used to make copies of my recipes; this was back before self-service copying. He liked to cook and told me about this great family recipe he had.
“It was a vast improvement over the dressing I grew up with, which was just celery, onion and some bread. My mother was Irish; she thought salt and pepper were exotic spices.”
Angie Stoll’s Chicken Liver Stuffing came from her grandmother. “She’s 75,” she says, “and she told me she’s been making this since she was 30. It’s her invention; she’s a great cook. She’s from Missouri; she’s kind of a country cook so the presentation isn’t much, but the flavor is there. I’ve tasted a lot of stuffings and I think it’s the best.”
Paula Ruggirello’s stuffing comes from another country cook, but a different country.
“My grandmother was born in Sicily, somewhere around Trapani,” she says, “and she came to Brooklyn early in the century by way of Ellis Island. She always made this stuffing for Thanksgiving. That’s the only time we ever had it.
“Where she got the idea for the kosher salami I’ll never know. You’d think, since she was Sicilian, she’d use dry salami, but she always used Hebrew National.”
Sandra Gill says her stuffing, which combines sage, sausage, cranberries and other fruits and nuts, started out as “kind of a joke thing.”
“We were up in San Francisco with relatives, and my cousin decided to cook a turkey. She’d never done one before, and the very thought of doing a turkey . . . ‘How do you do it? What goes in it?’
“So I told her from memory everything I’d ever put in a stuffing, and everybody liked how it came out. She said, ‘Write that down!’ So I did, and I called it the Perfect Stuffing.”