Number 89 of my list of the top 100 (mostly Southern) meals and side dishes of all time.
I’ve often wondered if other countries have a national holiday like we do—Thanksgiving—an entire day dedicated to eating, followed by National Leftover Day, a holy day almost as big a hit as T-Day, itself. Is there a Sardine Day in Norway? A Fish & Chips Day in Great Britain? I really don’t know, although I’m sure I could Google it if I could figure out how to ask the right question.
But that’s not why I’m pontificating. I love—I really love—Thanksgiving. How could it not be a favorite holiday to one who loves to eat as much as I do? Of course, the person I can thank for both my love of eating and for Thanksgiving is good ol’ Mom. And my mom’s cooking. And my dad’s enthusiasm about eating whatever Mom cooked. I do mean “whatever” Mom cooked. Maybe my parents had secret conversations about what Mom was gonna prepare for supper every night. If so, they kept them secret. All I know is Dad would get home about 5:30 every night and at 6:00 p.m. my brother, sister, and I would gather at the table—the table where Dad ruled—and watch him fall in love with black-eyed peas, or Brussels sprouts, or string beans. Dad not only ate everything Mom fixed with gusto, he bragged on it all, too.
And whatever it was, we kids—my sister, my brother, and me—had to clean our plates at every meal. We weren’t forced to eat two plates-full, but by God, we had to eat one—every last bit of it, too. Thank goodness, like my dad, I loved Mom’s cooking. My brother, sad to say, was not so epicurean, and the poor boy suffered mightily for it. But that’s another story.
One special food we had at Thanksgiving—every Thanksgiving—was Oyster Dressing. It was a true dressing, prepared outside the bird, in a sparkling pan all of its own. I loved—I do love—oyster dressing to this day. But I have one terrible problem. I cannot, no matter how I try, prepare the dish and make it taste as good as Mom’s.
Oh, yes. I have heard this lament from many people. My problem is that I believe I know the answer, but I won’t do anything about it. I won’t make the recipe as it should be made, regardless of the fact that it’ll never taste right. Perhaps, you may think I secretly don’t want my oyster dressing to taste as good as Mom’s. Bull—balderdash! I do! I just don’t want to kill myself in the process. And please keep in mind that this is all just a theory. Mom is no longer around for me to prove my point.
The reason my oyster dressing doesn’t taste as good as Mom’s is because I won’t use white bread and I won’t drown it in salt. Period. I mean—how difficult is it to mix up bread, turkey, onions, egg, celery, and oysters? Not very. But let me tell you the part that’s difficult to believe—until this year—until I began writing this article—I never realized what was wrong with my recipe. You see, this year, thanks to my ongoing writings on food, I decided to make batch after batch of oyster dressing until I got it right. I would try cornbread (I have tried it many times, actually), I’d add extra turkey, I’d throw in an additional egg, I’d use twice as much poultry seasoning, I’d even add a ton of my favorite spice—Tony Chachere’s.
If you consider me insane, you’re probably right. How easily I forget the staple of my youth—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Made with—you guessed it—white bread. I still love a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich—or as Mom taught me to make—a peanut butter and onion sandwich. But I don’t use white bread, and to tell the truth, my pb& js don’t taste as good as the sandwiches of my youth. But that’s okay with me. They’re close. And so is my oyster dressing. It’s just not perfect. I now realize that any foodstuff my mom prepared that involved white bread, will never taste the same. Real bread—whole wheat bread—adds a delicate flavor that wasn’t there when I was a kid. I love the taste—but it isn’t the taste of my childhood. White bread, by contrast, adds no taste. It adds nothing.
I will not, under any circumstances, buy white bread. My sister does, but she’s sweet enough to buy me whole wheat when we visit. I wouldn’t buy her white bread if she came down to see me. No way. And I imagine she’ll make her version of Mom’s oyster dressing when we go up there on Thanksgiving. I’ll take a bite and that’s it. I simply can’t eat anything I know is made with white bread. Sometimes I imagine myself as a crazed do-gooder—General Good Health—and I envision myself running through Wal-mart, yanking all the Colonial white bread off the shelves and squishing it so the fools I see in the checkout line buying two-three loaves of white bread at a time, can’t buy any. A slice of white bread squishes easily into a small ball of pasty goo.
Now do you understand? Can you see the difficult time I have recreating my mother’s recipes? Can you see how stubborn and self-serving I can be?
Well—my oyster dressing cannot compare with Mom’s for three other reasons. One, I won’t add enough salt—Mom loved her salt. Two, oyster dressing requires gravy to be excellent. I am not a gravy maker. And three, Dad.
Good ol’ Dad. Never—not even once—did I hear my dad complain about Mom’s cooking. Just the opposite. He’d brag about every dish she made. Even the black-eyed peas, which I hated as a kid, but love now. When you hear your old man utter, “Bette, I think this is the best oyster dressing I’ve ever eaten,” over and over again, you can’t help but believe it’s true. It was.
So here it is—my little recipe for a small batch of oyster dressing. I make only small batches because—no matter how I make it—my wife will not eat anything with oysters in it.
- 1 cup chicken/turkey stock (plus more, if needed, to make the mixture wet)
- ½ stick butter
- 1 cup diced celery
- 1 cup fresh mushrooms, cut into chunks (or ½ cup canned)
- 1 cup diced Vidalia onion
- 1 eight-ounce container oysters
- 4 slices whole wheat bread, toasted
- ½ teaspoon Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning
- 1 egg, whipped
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a frying pan, melt the butter and sauté the celery about five minutes. Add the onions and cook until tender. Add mushrooms and simmer about three minutes. Chop the oysters into thumbnail-sized pieces, add to the onion mixture, and cook another five minutes. Break the bread up into thumbnail-sized pieces and put into a large mixing bowl. Add the chicken stock, the onion mixture, and the egg. Mix thoroughly. Use your hands (after you wash them).
Spray an aluminum 4 x 8 x 3-inch deep pan with spray-oil. Pour contents of bowl into pan and cook, uncovered, 45-60 minutes.