Diversity rules the side dishes that fill our feast table.
I was well into high school before I got an inkling that lasagna was not a traditional Thanksgiving side dish and that turkey stuffing usually involved cubed bread. The earliest feasts tucked in the cubby holes of my memory were eaten in shifts around a large table at my Sicilian-born grandparents’ apartment in Connecticut.
You had your classic roast turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce. There was always a baked pasta dish for the Italians and kielbasa and kraut for the Polish-American guys who married two of my mom’s sisters. Pie was involved, as was a bowl full of the family’s Italian sausage and potato stuffing. My Austrian-born dad loved all of it.
I’m not a hardcore traditionalist, but I observe certain rituals that connect me directly to my ancestors on the day before Thanksgiving.
Nanna and Papa Mazzola emigrated to the US almost a hundred years ago. Family lore is that Nanna had never seen a turkey before, never mind a stuffing. She sought advice from a French-Canadian woman named Rose who lived down the hall. Rose suggested a meat and potato stuffing reminiscent of the filling in tourtière pork pies. My grandmother improvised using the fennel-and chile-flake-spiced Italian sausage my grandfather made downstairs in his Italian market. It was a quintessentially all-American dish.
I’m not a hardcore traditionalist, but I observe certain rituals that connect me directly to my ancestors on the day before Thanksgiving. To make the stuffing, I use a pan I inherited from Nanna to boil the spuds and a huge, old cast-iron skillet to fry the sausage. While I work, the soundtrack is usually the Grateful Dead’s three-disc Europe ’72 album. This was the music I loved listening to when I first started making the stuffing on my own in college.
The a-ha moment in the process comes just after I combine the potatoes, meat, spices, butter, and broth and start muscling the separate parts into the ideal mashed but-not-totally-mushed state. The first taste of the stuffing always gets me going—but then so do the second and third as I tweak the spicing. This stuff transcends its humble ingredients, especially in what we call the “bird stuffing” that exits the carcass infused with even more flavor and fat. The stuff baked in a pie pan is good, but we regard that as backup “dressing.” There are many Southerners who have vigorously disagreed with me about that naming distinction. We have hotly debated the proper ingredients for a stuffing, i.e., bread, cornbread, oysters…at least until they taste my stuffing. I love it when there are two, three, or more kinds of stuffing on the table.
Some worry about the moistness of the turkey, whether the white and dark meat is equally roasted and the skin dark brown. Most of us care a lot more on the fourth Thursday in November about what’s within the bird and the array of side dishes, from deviled eggs to dessert.
There are foodie snobs among my friends who would virtually ban green bean casserole and ambrosia “salad” made with canned fruit, sweetened coconut, marshmallows, and Dream (or Cool) Whip. I figure every single one of us sitting down at the feast deserves to enjoy the dishes that say “Thanksgiving” to them, whether it is caramelized Brussels sprouts with pecans, pomegranate, and pecorino or baked candied yams under a toasted marshmallow toupee. We set aside our omnipresent diet for one day a year and indulge.
Feel free to ignore the measurements in the following recipe. I change it from year to year and sometimes include celery, fennel, and pine nuts. I know folks who make this stuffing with chorizo instead of Italian sausage and add roasted green chilies and others who substitute crumbled tempeh and mushroom broth. Now it is their family’s traditional Thanksgiving stuffing, a fact that always amazed and amused my mom, who taught me how to make it.
This Thanksgiving, may your home be perfumed with spicy sausage and sage and graced with a brace of pies. At this year’s feast, let us raise a toast in gratitude to the immigrants who got us here so we could gather around the table again. Lift another to the folks who grew and harvested the crops in Colorado and elsewhere.