Southern Conundrum

Rick Bragg’s Quandary: Can I Mess with My Grandma’s Secret Dressing Recipe?

A reverence for the family special is non-negotiable—but not everyone toes the line

illustration: Lars Leetaru

We like to joke about the things we will fight over, down here, but it’s posturing, mostly. I have never seen anyone actually go bare-knuckle over the Alabama-Auburn game, though once, in New Orleans, I did see a pretty good dustup between Florida and Florida State fans on Bourbon Street. It was great. The preamble—mostly cussing and shoving—took so long I had time to get me a root beer, and a good place to lean. By the time the first punch was thrown, everybody was pretty much wore out. I don’t think people in boat shoes and khaki shorts should go into battle, anyhow, even in the French Quarter.

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My point is, we rarely follow through on our big talk about beatin’ somebody like the proverbial ugly redheaded stepchild, which my mother will not even allow me to say. We have cousins like that.

Only one thing, that I can think of, might actually bring my people to violence during the holidays: Change Grandma’s dressing recipe, after she has left this world, and by God see what happens. This can result in Thanksgiving being “ruin’t,” or even “rurn’t.”

My grandma’s ghost is always near. “She let me mix it up in the big bowl, so I would know what was in it, and how much,” says my mother, Margaret, of the dressing by her mother, Ava, who taught her pretty much everything that was worth knowing.

There were a lot of little secrets, like “always use half as much sage as you think you ought to,” my mother says. “People just go crazy with sage.” Use twice as much onion as you thought you would when you woke up that morning. This is about as accurate as our measurements get.

My mother’s favorite measurement is “you know, hon, just some.”

But the real secret is in the mixing itself. Her mother told her to stir and stir, till it was as smooth as pudding. You could eat it that way, with a spoon. “Moist,” my mother says. “It had to be moist.” Cook it too long, and it was hardtack. Don’t cook it long enough, and it was gruel.

And you must cook it in a pan. The only people who actually stuff it up inside the bird are obviously philistines. Such people are courting salmonella and the wrath of God.

I remember the furor caused when one of my aunts decided to use a can of cream of chicken soup to enhance the creaminess. We still do not speak of it, even though she has done gone on.

It’s pretty much standard during our holidays that my mother makes the dressing, which is my grandma’s dressing, though I have cousins who stick pretty close to that recipe and make a fine pan of it, now and then. And so the closest we’ve come to actual violence was by way of our cousin Sis, who liked to flavor her dressing with whatever rooster had made her mad. She once shot her husband in the teeth with a snub-nosed .22, for the same offense. I am not making this up. He lived. I’m just sayin’.

But I know one thing. Sis didn’t do a lot of posturing and gesticulating before she shot either one of them—husbands or roosters—and you can bet she never got anywhere near a can of soup.