The United States of Stuffing
We try to make heads or tails out of America’s varied and complex recipes for the hearty and traditional dish.
Stuffing in the North, dressing in the South, filling among the Pennsylvania Dutch. Regardless of what you call the traditional and hearty dish, now is the time to make it.
Thanks to Thanksgiving and Christmas, Americans generally become obsessed with stuffing and its many variations and permutations around this time of year. But trying to create some hard and fast rules about what is and what is not stuffing has driven me a bit crazy. (Is it that stuffing goes into a bird and dressing goes in a casserole dish? Or perhaps the lines are drawn between using a base of rice vs. croutons?) People are quick to espouse their beliefs, but are pretty shy about providing proof of their assertions.
Hopefully, we can all agree that cooking the stuffing (no matter what it includes) in the bird is a bad idea. (It results in overcooking the bird or undercook the stuffing—there’s no other result.) What doesn’t help is that early stuffing recipes are pretty loose and simple, providing little historical precedent.
I have my own complicated history with stuffing. I admit that I didn’t understand the appeal for years. My childhood holidays didn’t cling to tradition, we’d just as soon have trout for Thanksgiving. So, stuffing didn’t ring bells for me. But my mother-in-law makes a rich, giblet-and-innards hinted casserole that I loved from the moment I tasted it. Of course, there is some bad stuffing out there: dense, salty, footballs, like eating a rolled-up pill of soggy Wonder Bread. It doesn’t have to be that way. Stuffing at its full potential is wonderful.
What’s more, it seems to be infinitely variable.
I started this piece hoping I could research stuffing and end up with a sort of map—over here they do this, down here they do this—which I could neatly summarize. The thing is, stuffing is so American, so diverse, so open-ended in its variations that it resists classification. I came up with no such infographic.
My research even extended to the far reaches of the country’s borders without much success. When I learned that there exists a tradition of roasting a tundra swan for the holidays in Alaska—or, at least among some subset of Alaskans—I thought for sure they must stuff it with something unique. Nope. Just bread cube stuffing.
There are a few stuffing ingredients so specific to their place that it is rare to see them added to the dish anywhere else, unless in tribute. (If there’s crawfish in the stuffing, someone is in Louisiana or thinking about it.) Extrapolating from that, I thought I might be able to categorize stuffings by additions—like oysters in the North East perhaps? Nope. Turns out oyster stuffing is served by anyone who likes bivalves.
There are, as far as I can tell, six core types of stuffing/dressing (potato, bread, corn bread, rice, masa harina, and wild rice) with three that are distinctly regional.
Pennsylvania Dutch filling is a casserole of mashed potatoes, bread, and butter, that is solidly Pennsylvanian. Wild rice stuffing really does hail from the Great Lakes region, where the wild rice grows. Tamale stuffing is rarely seen outside of the states that touch Mexico. After that, whatever pattern one tries to lay down upon this classic American dish is thwarted by exceptions and variations.
The second you think you’ve got the rice-based dressing sorted out, you’ll find that Ligaya Mishan once wrote in The New York Times about Hawaiian glutinous rice stuffing with Chinese sausage and char siu pork, which is topped with strips of omelet.
As I researched, I fell more and more in love with this whole idea, and less and less sure that I even know what stuffing is anymore. (If you think you still know, I’ll ask you this: Is a pilaf a stuffing?)
What’s causing this mess? Well, it’s hard to have two big feasts so close together. Thanksgiving scratches the traditional stuffing itch, and Christmas allows for more innovation and creativity.
I look at it like Thanksgiving is the opportunity to fulfill whatever cultural obligation you may have—make your grandmother’s chestnut recipe and cook whatever it is that makes you feel whole. At Christmas, freed to cast a wider net, you can make whatever stuffing you want.
The only question that’s left is which one to make on Dec. 25? I’m currently narrowing it down.