It’s a simple recipe. Celery cooked in a bit of water. Finely broken day-old biscuits and cornbread. One egg. Salt and plenty of pepper.
Though my grandmother likely had stale biscuits on hand, we hardly eat bread in my house except during the holidays. So I pop open the can of Pillsbury Grands with her long-worn gravy spoon and set them on the pan to cook.
Though I’ve made her dressing for some years now, each time I pull out the recipe, I wonder if I’m forgetting something. Surely there’s a bit of onion in there, some sage and butter. I’ve been reading about all the fancy ways to make dressing these days and think of adding my own twist to this ages-old recipe. But as I fold the ingredients together and give it a taste, I think, not for the first time, that Grandmama knew that simple was best.
I don’t have physical reminders of my grandmother, except for a few letters and her gravy spoon. It’s my go-to kitchen spoon, the one I always pull from the drawer to scramble eggs, make gravy on rare occasions, and of course to make her dressing. Unlike me, she was right-handed, so the tip is worn down on the left edge from all the stirring she did in close to 70 years in her small kitchen.
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There is something about using it to break up the stale pieces of cornbread and shape it into her dressing. Things taste better when steeped in tradition.
Reuniting with memories
A few weeks ago, I drove into my grandmother’s hometown of Fremont to pay last respects to my second cousin — her niece — Ida Jean. She had died the week before.
My mother, brother and I met at Fremont United Methodist Church, finding our seats while the pianist in front of us waltzed his fingers across the keyboard, filling the church with hymns from childhood. I closed my eyes, listening as Amazing Grace blended into “Jesus Loves Me,” then “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” all known but more lyrical under this maestro’s fingers.
Something about the man was familiar, and then, a sudden recognition. He’s a cousin, too. His brother was the coach at my high school and is married to my brother’s old girlfriend. His small band played in the backyard at my wedding and at my sister’s. Such is the tangle of Eastern North Carolina kin.
After the service, we made our way to the receiving line, shaking hands and hugging the family, cousins we’ve not seen in a long while. The whole room, it seemed, was filled with kinfolk — Hooks and Aycocks — though we don’t know them. I remember going to a family reunion once on the Byrum side and whining to my grandmother that the church yard was filled with strangers.
“Just go introduce yourself,” she said. “You’re kin to everybody.”
On this day I introduced myself as “Susan Estelle, Miss Estelle’s grandchild.” She didn’t live in Fremont after her early 20s when she married my grandfather, though her sister, Beulah — Ida Jean’s mother — lived there her entire life.
Leaving, we passed old photographs of Hooks and Aycock women who were leaders in the church. My grandmother would have known these women as she was growing up in this congregation. They may have been her kin, and mine, too.
Further on, we saw our pianist cousin, an Aycock, and he recognized my mother. We chatted about the family, and names rolled off his tongue from memory of all the branches of our family tree and its connection to his. One ancestor who built a church on family property wrote in his will that if it ever ceased to be a church, the land would revert to his descendants.
“There are about 10,000 of us now,” he said, so few would get more than a nickel.
The family recipe
As Thanksgiving approached, I pulled out the dressing recipe and thought of my grandmother. As I set out the ingredients, I remembered some documents my father gave me some years ago about my grandmother’s family history.
I found the folder and a note in my father’s scrawl: “Perhaps these will be of some use to you.”
Scanning the list of names, parents and siblings I’d heard her talk about, I imagined each one. Lillian, tall, the oldest. Frank, most like my father. Was Clarence the one who died while a student at Carolina? I only knew Aunt Beulah.
At the top of the list was my great-grandmother, Ida. Is this her recipe?
I imagine her punching out breakfast biscuits in her sunny kitchen in the days before a long-ago Thanksgiving, gathering the leftovers in a bowl with some old cornbread and letting them sit. And early on Thanksgiving morning, she gathered celery from her fall garden, chopping it fine and softening it in some boiling water for a minute before adding it to the bowl.
An egg from the coop, though, would add some moisture, so she cracked the egg, pulled a large spoon from the drawer and began to stir.