Recipes Generate a Taste of Controversy

The New York Times tried to evoke something of the cultures and traditions of each state in the Union with a Thanksgiving recipe section. Some of the negative reader reaction misses the point: Family recipes should be shared, along with the stories that make them special. Join the conversation and share your stories on Facebook.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Share your favorite Thanksgiving recipes and stories on the Daily Yonder Facebook page.

Last week I had a family recipe for dressing appear in the New York Times. Their interactive feature  “The United States of Thanksgiving” included recipes from all 50 states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico. Our heirloom recipe was, much to my surprise, chosen to represent Kentucky.

I wasn’t the only one surprised, as some readers in Kentucky sounded off about it failing to represent a state rich with culinary diversity.

While I’d never claim that our dressing could speak for all Kentuckians – no one recipe could, a lovely fact –  we’ve been making it for a recorded four generations. It is attributed to my great-grandmother Fannie Meadors Smith. Fannie was born in a tiny community located on the banks of the Cumberland River near Williamsburg, Kentucky, in 1885

My father shared this story about the recipe:

At Thanksgiving time the women would prep huge bowls of the dressing recipe. It’d be ready to last several days, and they’d store it outside on the back porch in the family’s first refrigerator. Papaw Willis and Uncle Junior would leave at daybreak from the back porch and hunt for quail and rabbit on our hill while the women were cooking. I would trail behind them to watch the stray hunting dogs. Afterward, we’d come in, clean up and eat. Then we’d head out to hunt again with leftover dressing as snacks. The dressing was in patty form so it fit in the pockets of our hunting jackets. The women would wrap it in wax paper. They served as nice hand warmers. The Friday, Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving, we’d continue hunting, taking the leftover dressing with us and sometimes turkey with fresh biscuits pulled out of the oven that morning.

After Fannie died my grandmother Alma carried on the tradition and taught my mother.  A signature of the dressing is that the cooks press their thumb into the center to serve as an indent for drippings that keep it moist. The fingerprint is the physical touch of a loved one on the meal. The dish now serves to connect the generations of our family across time and to help us remember those no longer with us.

Photo courtesy of Lora Smith
Grandmother Alma on her horse, Smokey. Alma learned how to make the dressing from her mother and passed it on to the next generation and beyond.

To adapt the recipe for a national audience, the newspaper made some concessions including cooking the patties in oiled muffin tins for consistency of shape instead of hand patting them. What traditionally would’ve been foraged chestnuts and regional mushrooms like morels were replaced by store-bought varieties. They needed a name and called it “pocket dressing.”

Our “pocket dressing” was not alone in receiving criticism from readers who felt that the Times had misrepresented their states’ culinary characteristics. From Alabama’s oyster dressing (“Wrong, wrong, wrong. I don’t know anyone in Alabama that serves it.”) to Wisconsin’s wild rice with mushroom (“I can’t get on board with this … Wild rice is much more a Minnesota thing.”), readers had a bone to pick.

The largest offense seemed to come from Minnesotans, who were given a mixture of grapes and sour cream for their holiday dish, a recipe attributed to an anonymous “Minnesota-born heiress.”  Over on NPR’s blog, writer Linda Holmes took the Times out behind the woodshed, accusing them of fly-over elitism. A Minnesota born  heiress account appeared on twitter bragging about her amazing grape salad and #grapegate was declared.

Luckily, our family recipe wasn’t cause for that level of national outrage. A good thing considering certain members of my family don’t need the dark cloud of Pocketgate 2014 looming over the table as an excuse to drink more during the meal. However, Fannie’s recipe wasn’t spared from a few keyboard lashings. 

People cried out for the Beaumont Inn’s corn pudding, the trademark-registered derby pie of the Melrose Inn and for bourbon-soaked anything. Others took offense to the mention of hunting in the story saying things like, “Some of us shop in grocery stores!” I assume to assert they weren’t backwoods hicks. And still others called the recipe and story “fantasy” and speculated that I wasn’t a real person.

While my family’s tradition does not speak for the whole of Kentucky, there are pieces tied to a larger experience. A cornbread-based Thanksgiving dressing will appear on many Kentucky tables this Thanksgiving.  John Egerton writes about the popularity of cornbread stuffing in Kentucky and Tennessee in his book Southern Food and documents a similar cornbread dressing from an 1839 cookbook. He adds this from his own experience growing up in rural Cadiz, Kentucky,  "We prefer it as a separate dish, shaped into patties the size of eggs and baked to a crusty brown on a cookie sheet.” I heard from some Kentucky readers that they serve similar, but rounded “dressing balls.”

Then there’s certain ingredients and aspects of the recipe that open the door to stories about other shared rural experiences: hunting traditions within families, foraging practices and the use of the once abundant American chestnut tree in our region before blight erased it from our landscape.

This is what’s great about family recipes. They are so localized, so specific to a particular family’s table and tastes. Any yet, they connect us to much broader histories.

So, why not my great-grandmother’s recipe over something more indicative of a city like Louisville or published in a chef’s cookbook or trademarked and served in a restaurant?

In a recent article, Appalachian-born chef Sean Brock reflects on the importance of family recipes and a change he sees in diners, “They are realizing that the food of their grandmothers is the most important food they will ever eat. I think people are really starting to experience this new sense of pride in regions, hometowns and families.”

Photo via the New York Times
The New York Times staff adapted the recipe and gave it the name “pocket dressing.” No recipe could represent all the diverse culinary traditions of any state – “a lovely fact,” says Lora Smith.

Sharing the recipes of our grandmothers, and the family stories attached to them, is one of the most intimate and vulnerable things we do.  It is an offering that says, “Here’s a piece of me. Here’s who my people are.”

The fact that the New York Times dining section chose a humble family recipe from a rural woman who, by today's celebrity-chef-obsessed standards, would be considered a nobody is kinda cool. It honored Fannie and shared part of her story with people across the country.

So readers in Yonderland, this Thanksgiving I want to know what will be on your table. What are your signature family dishes?  What do they say about you and where you are from? Who are your people?

Tell us your story. 

Lora Smith is a program officer at the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, co-owner of Big Switch Farm in Jackson County, Kentucky, and a food writer. She studied folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is working on a project about her great-grandmother’s cookbook and diary.

 

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