Elva’s Cornbread Dressing
Nothing in the world tastes better to me than my mother’s cornbread dressing. (In the north y’all call it stuffing.) I fixed the dressing this afternoon, and I was sorry I wasn’t able to give Mom spoonfuls and let her taste. She would always taste and say “add more onion!” or “more salt!” or “add another egg, it’s too dry!” After years of making it, though, I hope I did her proud.
When I was a kid I would always wake up Thanksgiving morning to the wonderful smell of cornbread baked in a cast iron skillet. Mom never used all the cornbread in her dressing, so I would go to the kitchen, get a big slab of warm cornbread, slather on some butter, pour milk over it, and eat it that way. We didn’t have a microwave (yes, I’m that old) but it didn’t matter. The cornbread would absorb the milk and butter and be heavenly.
While I ate, I would either watch the parades on TV or watch my parents prepare the turkey. Dad would get out the huge roasting pan and wash it out. The turkey would be rinsed, checked for pin feathers, and the package pulled out of the cavity. Then the bird would be heavily salted and smeared with butter, and Dad would put it in the oven. The dressing always went into a separate dish, not put into the bird.
Mom always put several large hunks of cornbread into her dressing mixture, along with about 4 cups of shredded up stale white bread.
Years ago Mom read the recipe for Lewis Grizzard’s mother’s cornbread and it included a dollop of Duke’s mayonnaise. Mom loved Duke’s and so we tried it and it was wonderful. So moist and flavorful. You do not taste the mayonnaise at all. Thereafter, that’s the way she always made cornbread.
The cornbread recipe is 1 ½ cups White Lily self-rising cornmeal mix, 1 egg, 1 cup buttermilk, a dollop of mayonnaise and a pinch of salt. No sugar. It’s important to note that no other cornmeal will do. (White Lily brand flour and White Lily cornmeal mix is revered in our house.) Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes. We usually double the recipe for the Thanksgiving dressing.
It’s really best to cook it in an iron skillet, but don’t get it too brown. Check it after 25 minutes.
I will admit that I don’t keep buttermilk in the fridge, and I always just use regular whole milk. I’ve never liked buttermilk. “Sweet milk” (as Mom used to call it) makes great cornbread, too.
I am super picky about chewy onions and celery, so starting when I was quite small Mom would cut up a small white onion and a few stalks of celery (after carefully unstringing the celery) and put them in some chicken broth to simmer on the stove while the cornbread cooked, so all those veggies would become nice and soft.
The recipe for Mom’s dressing is so imprecise it’s almost not really a recipe. The only reason I can make it is because after Mom turned 55 or thereabouts arthritis plagued her, so I took over more and more of the cornbread making. I’ve now made it at least a hundred times, with her sitting there watching.
After you add your crumbled cornbread to your torn bread pieces, you put in the onion/celery mixture and 3-5 eggs, and stir. Suddenly it becomes much less bulky. We always throw in a handful (about 1-2 tablespoons) of baking powder to lighten it up. Also, we add a can or two of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup, about half a stick of melted butter, onion powder, sage, poultry seasoning, and enough chicken broth to make the mixture fairly soupy. Mom’s handwritten recipe says 350 for 25 minutes but we always looked and checked, looked and checked.
My mom was very big on tasting foods as she was preparing them, so she could adjust the seasonings to her palate. She told me many times how important that was.
When I was small we often got together with Mom’s brothers and their families for Thanksgiving. Mother or Memaw (her mother) would make the dressing.
My mother often said she viewed turkey as simply an extra on the Thanksgiving table. Her dressing and gravy were the stars of the show.
My mom, Elva Hasty Thompson, lived with me and I took care of her for years before her death. She had become very frail by June of this year, and when she refused to get out of bed one day, or eat, I reluctantly had to call the ambulance. To my shock, she died from Covid and other issues four days later. The day she died, I was very sick with Covid, but fortunately I never had to go to the hospital.
I made my mom’s dressing recipe this afternoon. It will keep in the fridge until Thursday. I am proud that I didn’t cry as I made it. Thursday’s meal will just be me, my son, and three friends. I know Mom will be there in spirit, though.