By Jeff Westover
Only in America could something as unromantic sounding as stuffing be classified as an art. For many, the star of the show during a Thanksgiving feast is not the turkey and it is not the pumpkin pie – it is the stuffing.
Stuffing is the one food element of Thanksgiving that seems to have multiple roots. In fact, the very idea of giving Thanks is one very universal thought in itself. The Romans gave thanks to their gods, so too did ancient Hindus – and, of course, the topic of giving thanks for blessings is all over the Bible.
Thanksgiving as a matter of practice has been celebrated in one form or another across many cultures and so too does stuffing appear to be an art practiced around the world. Ancient Egyptians stuffed birds; so too did the Romans. And Eastern Europeans of antiquity stuffed all manner of animals.
We tend to think of stuffing as something for the birds and indeed, historical records show many cultures that stuff the body cavities of turkeys, chickens, geese, and even pigeons with all manner of breads, vegetables, fruits and spices. But really, stuffing as an art can and is extended to things like pigs, olives, meats, breads and wild boar.
There is even stuffing known as turducken, which is a chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey and all cooked together. It sounds pretty interesting (unless you are a bird).
The reasons for stuffing a bird are strictly culinary. There is no religious or cultural symbolism in stuffing a bird. Stuffing will prevent hot, dry roasting air from entering the body cavity, producing a more evenly roasted bird that is enhanced by the spices put into the stuffing. Stuffing a bird does require longer roasting times than an unstuffed bird, however.
Debates of all kinds rage about stuffing. The first is what to call it. Some call it stuffing, some call it dressing.
What is the difference between the two?
Stuffing is a mixture of bread or similar foodstuff such as shredded corn bread, muffins or biscuits that is mixed with spices, fruits, vegetables or other foods and put inside the bird.
Dressing is basically the same material but instead of inside the bird it is cooked separated from the meat.
For Americans foods tend to be made for convenience these days. Fast foods are popular, from drive in restaurants to quick microwave meals. Stuffing has not escaped the American way of making something tasty in an instant. Every Thanksgiving Kraft Foods sells more than 60 million boxes of Stove Top stuffing for Thanksgiving alone.
For many the family stuffing recipe is not only a time honored tradition is it also a family secret -- so guarded that it is prepared only in the dark of night during the wee morning hours while all are asleep.
The art of stuffing is all in the composition. Some, for example, swear that no stuffing is complete without sausage, onions and that Thanksgiving spice to end all spices, sage.
Oysters are a popular addition, as are apples, cranberries, and celery. Almonds, chestnuts and pecans are also often used as part of a traditional stuffing, too.
But according to several food sites the real secret to great stuffing is the finely and uniformly chopped nature of all the ingredients. It needs to all be very finely reduced in order to ensure a blending of flavors.
If prepared for cooking inside the turkey, stuffing must come to a temperature of 165 degrees or it may harbor bacteria from the bird. It is important to test the temperature of stuffing separate from that of the bird – that means no cheating and trying to get an accurate read of the stuffing through where you would typically take the temperature near the turkey thigh – it needs to come from the stuffing itself.
While there is no evidence that stuffing was a part of the historical first Thanksgiving in America there is no doubt that stuffing is these days most closely associated with the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
While many eat stuffing year round many save their “special” recipe for Thanksgiving. It is a revered tradition looked forward to with great anticipation.