The best recipes aren’t necessarily the ones that are written down. Instead they are a part of who you are–you just know when it’s right.
My mother, lovingly called Moo by her grandchildren, made the best cornbread dressing. But there wasn’t a recipe. For us, her children, it was never an issue because she trained our taste buds to know exactly when there was enough sage or salt or butter. I believe that the flavor of her dressing is a part of our DNA. As we married, the fact that there wasn’t a recipe to her famous cornbread dressing drove our spouses (who all love to cook) crazy, especially my sister-in-law Diann. She became a fan of mother’s cornbread dressing the year that she and my brother married. She couldn’t wait to make it for her family, but there wasn’t a recipe.
Over the years, when we all gathered together to making the dressing, there have been curious looks, shaking heads, and much questioning about why there wasn’t a recipe. Bless her heart, Mother tried to write it down. But she never landed on that perfect taste the same way twice. Too much depended on the freshness of the ingredients and the age of the dried sage. The years that she attempted to measured out the ingredients were the years that it didn’t taste right.
“This isn’t a science experiment,” she said. “You can’t measure out perfection.”
One year, determined to get the recipe recorded, Diann watched us and kept track of how much we added of each ingredient. But after the fourth time of adding another handful of sage or a dash more pepper, she finally gave up and declared us impossible.
Mother loved the ritual of making her dressing. We cherished the nights before any holiday when we’d all finally be back home on Brown Road. After unpacking cars and giving out hugs, we would put on our PJs and gather in her kitchen. She would have already filled the large container that she only used for dressing with fresh crumbled cornbread. Then we’d start adding the chicken broth, eggs, melted butter, celery, sage, salt, and pepper. Somebody would stir and somebody else would keep adding salt. Then the taste testing would begin. Without fail, it always needed more of this or that. Holding our breaths as we dipped our spoons into the mixture, we’d slowly anticipate that first taste.
“Needs more salt.”
“Needs more butter.”
“No. It needs more sage. It’s not green enough yet.”
More ingredients would be added until the moment when our taste buds would start buzzing, announcing that the dressing was done. With relief, we’d head off to bed knowing that, once baked, the dressing would be perfect and all was right with the world
This year, on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, we gathered in my sister’s kitchen. Like our mother, Rita had the large container filled with warm crumbled cornbread waiting for us. It’s always around that container that we reconnect as a family. We joke, we laugh, and we always tell the same stories. Even the kids know the stories and laugh along to tales about Moo’s dressing that happened years before they were born. We were having so much fun making dressing this year that we ended up with a double batch, meaning that we had enough for Thanksgiving and for Christmas dinner, which was at our house.
For the first time since we’ve been married, my family came to Murray for Christmas. My favorite gift came from my brother, his wife, and their sons. Diann had made us each a beautiful apron. My sister and her husband’s aprons were Christmas themed, which was perfect for them as they collect Santa Clauses and often have a dozen decorated trees in their home. My Beloved and I received Chez Medlock aprons which are absolutely beautiful. Tucked into the box along with new oven mitts and kitchen tools was a recipe. Exactly as it should be. As Vince read it aloud, we laughed, and yes, I wiped away a tear–for the woman who taught me the joy of cooking and that the best recipes can’t be measured when the most important ingredient is love.
Moo’s Famous Cornbread Dressing
Chicken Broth (Only buy chicken on sale, pull from bones, boil the bone.)
Sage (Brown Road grown only!)
Eggs (Six or seven if fresh, a dozen if from the store)
Onion (1 if Rita makes it, 3 if others make it)
Celery (diced except for when Mary Anne juices it)
Carrots (if Mary Anne can hide them)
Salt and Pepper to taste, and taste, and taste.
Butter (Start with 1 stick and keep adding until other ingredients float)
After cornmeal and bisquick mixture is oven-browned, rip the bread into small pieces in a large bowl. (Have larger bowl ready as the mixture grows and grows). Once all ingredients are floating (don’t worry, it will absorb through the night) taste concoction with large spoons. Only double-dip if other guests are not planned. As more bread is added, transfer to your largest bowl because it will grow overnight. When 2 of 3 siblings agree “Yep, that’s it,” pour into as many pans as possible for baking. As the dressing is baking, wild tales must be repeated from previous years about the grandmother arguments over who made the best or about when Moo dumped the pan on the floor while we were living in Beaver Dam, and she scraped it up and served it anyway…daring us to say a word about it.