The basic Thanksgiving dinner is pretty consistent throughout the US - turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and sides, however, there are significant differences in the ingredients and cooking methods used throughout the different regions in the country. Most of those differences live in peaceful harmony, but there is one dish that has prompted more dinner table debates than any other - stuffing, also known as dressing.
In this week's episode, we finally settle the debate.
As promised, how to fry a turkey without killing yourself from popular science, and in case you are not yet convinced that frying a turkey is dangerous, here is a video of a flaming Turkey from Tech Insider.
Welcome to Hang Your Hat. This is Episode 23.
Last year, right around this time, the very first episode of Hang Your Hat came out. It was an in-depth look at the history or Thanksgiving, and while it is not as polished as some of my recent shows, I feel that it has a lot of great information on the holiday and is worth a listen. This year I thought I would tackle a hard-hitting Thanksgiving issue, one that truly divides the nation - stuffing vs dressing.
The United States is a really big country. If you compare the size of all the states put together, including Alaska and Hawaii, then you get a land mass that is nearly as big as all of Europe, and our biggest states are bigger than the largest countries in Europe. While the US does not have quite the same rich cultural heritage dating back several thousands of years that make the countries of Europe so different, any time you have large physical distances and climatic differences between two places you will get some notable differences in the behavior and preferences of the people living in those dispirit places. As a result, there are significant regional differences in the US, and one of the places that those differences are most obvious are in Thanksgiving food choices.
The typical Thanksgiving meal consisting of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy, along with a bunch of sides is pretty consistent across the US, but the preparation of each of these items varies between regions.
The Thanksgiving turkey is roasted by default, it is the traditional way of cooking a Thanksgiving turkey and can be found across the country, but in southern California where the weather is nice in November, you might find a grilled turkey. In the areas known for Barbecue, like Kansas City and Texas, you might find smoked turkey, and in the 1920’s and 1930’s Louisiana and Kentucky pioneered the frying of a whole turkey - a method that has spread across the south. On a side note frying a Turkey is the most dangerous way of cooking a turkey. If done wrong you could find yourself with a 20-foot column of flaming aerosolized oil on your hands. If you plan to fry a turkey this year make sure you know how. Popular science wrote an article on the subject called “How to deep fry a turkey without killing yourself,” and I will link to it in the show notes. Spoiler - in involves building a derrick over your fryer and slowly lowering the turkey into the fryer using a pulley system.
Gravy is another dish that divides us. Everything from spicy red chili gravy in the south-west to turkey gravy featuring hard-boiled eggs in the south-east and our favorite side dishes vary wildly from state to state.
A few years ago the New York Times figured out what each state’s favorite sides were based on Google search results, they found that in the Rockies people eat something called frog eye salad, which is a combination of pasta, fruit, eggs, whipped cream, and marshmallows and, I’m guessing must be an acquired taste. In Texas, Mexican influences were apparent. Sopapilla cheesecake was a favorite. In my home state, Florida, our top choice of Flan de Calabaza showed the influence of our large Cuban population. The most interesting and unusual favorite regional sides, in my opinion, were snicker salad, which was popular in the midwest, and Pig Pickin’ cake which was North Carolina’s favorite. Despite its name, pig-pickin' cake contains no pig. It is actually a white cake containing mandarin oranges and pineapple. Its name is thought to come from the tradition of eating it at a pig-pickin' which is a southern barbecue where the entire pig is roasted and bits are picked off and eaten.
However, there is one Thanksgiving dish that divides our nation more than any other. It is a baked, moist, starch-based dish, with additions like fruit, veggies, nuts, and meat that vary from one region to the next, based on the foods that are common or special to the region. Where I live in the south-east it tends to be cornbread based. The addition of sausages is pretty common here on the east coast, but in the northeast and gulf coast, you might see oysters rather than sausage. On the west coast, especially in California, you are more likely to see it made from sourdough and apples, and in the pacific northwest, they add oysters, clams, and muscles. The base used in the northern midwest is wild rice because it grows abundantly in the region, and in Pennsylvania, it will probably be mashed potato based due to the strong influence of the local Mennonite population.
You might have guessed by now that I am talking about stuffing, also known as dressing, or if you live in Pennsylvania, filling. To some degree, what we call it is based on its cooking method - some argue that stuffing and dressing are the same dishes, with stuffing being cooked inside the turkey, and dressing being cooked outside it. However, the distinction is also regional, and depending on what region you are from you are liking to call the dish the same thing no matter how it is cooked. The deep south almost universally uses the term dressing to refer to this dish, and the northeast it is almost always stuffing regardless of how it is cooked. The rest of the country is likely to use the word stuffing, but are more likely to differentiate based on cooking method.
Where did this distinction come from? Well, it dates back more than 100 years and may be related to the history of the US in the mid to late 1800’s.
But let's start out with a quick look at how this dish got its start.
The idea of stuffing food inside other food and cooking it together is really old. So old in fact that we really are not sure how far it dates back. However, It is probably safe to say that humans did not go too long without figuring out that a hollowed out carcass makes a good substitute casserole dish.
The earliest written reference to stuffing that I could find only dates back to about the 4th century AD. There were several references to stuffing published in a Roman cookbook called Apicius, which was published around that time. One of the recipes in the book recommends stuffing rabbit with a mixture of pepper, lovage, chicken livers, cooked brains, and finely cut meat. But they would not have called this mixture stuffing - they probably would have used a version of the word fares which means to stuff. This later evolved into farce around 1390, then farce meat, and then into forcemeat in 1688, a term that is still used in culinary circles today.
The word dressing wasn’t used to describe this dish until 1850. Up until that time, it was actually rarely used as a noun at all, it was primarily used as a verb that was roughly equivalent to preparing a dish. When it was used as a noun it described something like a salad dressing rather than stuffing. Then 1850 rolled around and Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book: Designed as a supplement to her treatise on Domestic Economy book was published, and the great stuffing vs dressing debate was born.
In this book, she described a dish that sounds an awful lot like stuffing but she calls it dressing.
Here is a quote from the recipe To Roast a Fillet or Leg of Veal, “Make a dressing of chopped raw salt pork, salt, pepper, sweet herbs and bread crumbs, or use butter instead of pork. Stuff the openings in the meat with the dressing.”
There are a bunch of recipes in this book that use the word dressing in the same way, and this use of the word dressing increases in cookbooks into the 1870s.
What I think is interesting about this is that at this time dressing is cooked inside animals - there is no reference to cooking it on the side. That didn’t happen until Lafcadio Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole, A Collection of Culinary Recipes from Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous for its Cuisine in 1885. But in his book, he refers to these dishes cooked outside the animal as stuffing. So from the start, there has even been a clear distinction as to what is stuffing vs dressing is as far as cooking technique.
So why the switch to the word dressing? Most of my sources seemed to think that it was due to Victorian sensibilities. In an era when even table legs were covered up less they instigate impure thoughts, references to stuffing were just too vulgar to bear, and thus the more elegant and refined dressing was born.
So this Thanksgiving when someone mistakes Grandma’s prize-winning dressing for stuffing, remember, the difference between the dishes is only the name we use to describe them.
I found a fun fact while researching for the show, and I just had to share it. Back in 1985 Herbert’s specialty meats in
Louisiana was credited with the creation of the Turducken, which is a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey and all roasted together like one giant mutant hybrid bird. Well, it turns out, that their creation was not a novel one. We have a history of stuffing one animal inside another and cooking them that dates back to the Roman era. One recipe from that period involved stuffing a chicken inside a duck, then the duck inside a goose, then the goose inside a pig, then the pig inside a cow, and cooking the whole thing together.
However, the Roman recipe does not hold a candle to Reyniere’s 1807 Roast without equal which has a bustard stuffed with a turkey, a goose, a pheasant, a chicken, a duck, a guinea fowl, a teal, a woodcock, a partridge, a plover, a lapwing, a quail, a thrush, a lark, an ortolan bunting and a garden warbler. That is 17 birds.
Westerners were not the only ones stuffing multiple animals inside each other, however. The book Passion India recounts a dish served by Maharajah Ganga Singh in the late 1800s that involved putting a sparrow inside a quail inside a grouse inside a chicken inside a turkey inside a goat inside a camel - and then putting the camel and it’s companions in a hole in the ground and roasting it.
Now that the Herberts have rekindled the tradition, I wonder what will be shoved inside what and cooked next.
Thanks for listening to Hang Your Hat and supporting the show over this past year. I would be incredibly grateful this Thanksgiving if you were to share Hang Your Hat with someone you think would enjoy the show.
If you have a question or topic you would like me to cover during the next year please let me know. I would love to know what you all are interested in learning about. You can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at hangyourhatpodcast.com
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Happy Thanksgiving Everyone.