Stuffing or Dressing? That is the question that often rages every Thanksgiving as chefs plan their printed menus. The correct answer, actually, depends on where their restaurant is located.
From a culinary point of view, “stuffing” is what is cooked inside the turkey because, well, it is “stuffed inside.” Makes sense, no? “Dressing” refers to the savory mixture that is cooked outside the turkey, “dressing” up or enhancing the serving platter.
From a regional viewpoint, north of the Mason-Dixon Line, “stuffing” is called stuffing. That’s because “stuffing” is an old British word, dating back to at least 1538. Its use in the northern part of the United States still reflects the English heritage of America’s early settlers.
South of the Mason-Dixon Line, stuffing is generally called “dressing.” This shift in word choice occurred because holiday dining in the South was historically centered around the great rural plantations and elegant townhouses of Charleston, Atlanta and New Orleans.
There, with the help of skilled black slaves in the kitchen, dining was a far more formal affair than in the rural farms of the North. The baronial Scottish heritage of many of the wealthy white families dictated that the turkey be elaborately “dressed” with stuffing arranged outside the bird, hence the word “dressing.”
After the Civil War, many former kitchen slaves left the South and found first-time paid employment in the kitchens of Northern hotels and in the dining cars of the Pullman trains heading west. As a result, the use of the word “dressing” moved out of the South and spread across the nation, mingling with the local use of the word “stuffing.” Today it’s basically a personal word choice as both words are generally interchangeable to modern diners.
As to what is the best recipe for Thanksgiving stuffing/dressing, however, has remained largely a regional decision. In the North, a bread stuffing made with onions, celery, thyme and sage is the norm while in the Carolinas a rice dressing is the more traditional choice.
Cornbread dressing is a Deep South favorite, with diced ham, country bacon or smoked sausage added. During the Victorian era, both New England and Louisiana cooks favored oysters mixed into the stuffing/dressing. Today this tradition is being revived as both areas are working hard to restore their over-harvested oyster beds.
In Chicago and surrounding parts of the Midwest, where there are large Eastern European communities, rye or other heavy Bohemian-style breads are often used to make a heartier but great tasting stuffing. Meanwhile in California, creative cooks use sourdough bread from San Francisco’s famed Fisherman’s Wharf as the basis for their stuffing/dressing mixed with other innovative ingredients such as artichokes. However in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, a corn-based tamale stuffing made with pulled pork, red chilies and rich raisins is a holiday must.
So this Thanksgiving, you can correctly add any of these amazing stuffings/dressings to your menu. Just remember to stir in “diversity” and “mutual respect” to enhance the feast and strengthen the future of the world.