Of all the scents that trigger old memories, nothing can send me back in time quite like the smell of sage dressing. Sage dressing was my mother’s signature dish, heavy with the savory spice and accompanying flavors celery and onion. There was no Thanksgiving in the Watson household without it. It was as much of a Christmas present as the brightest wrapped gift under the tree.
No matter how strained our food budget was during the year, Thanksgiving and Christmas were never given the short shrift. The holidays were the most certain days of the year that everyone was likely to be home. Even my Jehovah’s Witness brother and sister-in-law would likely be there since they were both teachers, school was out and ‘hey, let’s go visit Mama this Thursday, and whatever day in December might best catch her at home.’ Technically it wasn’t breaking the rules, and the rest of our collective of Protestants, Catholics and Undeclared certainly wouldn’t say anything.
Preparation began the night before with Mama mixing and rolling out the pastries for pies. It’s not that frozen store-bought pies weren’t available; Mama was a traditionalist and a family holiday deserved a personal effort. She made apple pie, pumpkin pies, blackberry cobbler, pecan pie and whatever kind of cake was requested. Chocolate, yellow, carrot, red velvet and pineapple upside-down cake vied for attention but like the Highlander, THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE. Well okay, maybe two, depending on whether there would be pudding.
She usually baked a big skillet of cornbread on Wednesday just to get the task out of the way. She opened up the turkey and removed the giblets to make gravy and to put in the dressing. There was no such thing as stuffing; dressing was a side item that did not belong in the interior of a bird. She tried it one year with a small pan of dressing on the side, and that was the first and only time stuffing was attempted.
Mama cooked down the giblets and neck pieces until meat slid off the neck bones with the simple lift of a fork. These giblets and meat would be chopped up and added to the crumbled cornbread along with enough broth to make it moist. She (or whichever sister was granted the task) then chopped celery and a medium onion and added it to the mix. For those starter cooks out there, a medium onion in the Watson household is roughly baseball-sized. Ground black pepper, an egg or two and ground sage were added and it was at this point that the magic began. The amount of sage, pepper and celery depended entirely upon the prep cook, which meant frequent taste-testing. This was serious business; why call it sage dressing if you cannot taste the sage. One utilized one’s olfactory sense to sort out how it should smell before baking, and one utilized one’s sense of taste until the perfect balance of sage, cornbread, onion and celery was achieved.
The dressing mixture was then placed in a greased pan – not just any pan, but the same big yellow-enameled cake pan that had been in the family ever since I could recall. When the turkey was placed in the oven in the wee hours of the morning, Mama made sure to have a bottom rack ready to add the dressing pan so it would bake in time to be ready with the turkey.
The stovetop held the other important menu items like candied sweet potatoes, buttery green beans, corn and giblet gravy. Perhaps one item to rival Sage Dressing’s legend was Mama’s sweet rolls. OH MY LORD this was her Thanksgiving morning specialty, mixing the dough from scratch and letting it rise in the warm moist comfortable kitchen on top of the refrigerator. Those rolls were baked before the dressing on the bottom rack and carefully monitored by Mama, pulled from the oven at the optimum moment of browning. Light and puffy and golden brown, two dozen rolls slathered in butter make my mouth water just from memory. Alas, none of us have perfected the re-creation of Mama’s Rolls. We’ve tried, but that certain touch of a master cook just isn’t there.
The turkey was thoroughly thawed in the refrigerator all week, commanding most of the shelves like the lord of all he surveyed. Once the giblets were removed and he was washed clean, he was salted and peppered inside and out and butter was thoroughly rubbed all over his exterior and interior, and was basted at intervals all through the baking process. He was usually an 18-pound bird. I must admit that before he was prepared for the pan, our turkey had to suffer the ignoble degradation of being made to dance a jig. The sight of an eighteen pound naked headless fowl held up to do the quickstep over the baking pan is not one to miss, and I’m sorry this sort of ritual is not a tradition in more households. Let us not forget the ham, which was not made to dance but did hop a little on its one leg.
If you think this was far too much food for one family, bear in mind that there were anywhere from nine to twelve people over for Thanksgiving, and leftovers would be taken home with visitors or used for the rest of the week. Mama never went grocery shopping the week after Thanksgiving, not where there were so many versions of leftover turkey recipes to try.
At the last minute when the turkey was out and cooling on a counter, we took out the Jell-o fruit salad from the refrigerator and chopped up garden salad ingredients. Table leaves were put in to hold all this goodness, and the Thanksgiving-themed cloth napkins were placed in the holders and set out with the silverware following proper dinner-setting etiquette. The turkey was carved with a lot of teasing and joking, and after the blessing someone inevitably cited the House Rules: “Grab and growl, keep one foot on the floor, and don’t stab your sister with your fork.” Those who wanted to sit at the table and converse could do so, while the diehard football fans stepped over into the living room area with TV trays so they could cheer and yell and try not to slosh their tea/soda/punch/other drink.
Yes, that was Thanksgiving for our family. We were a big family with different interests, beliefs, temperaments and tastes. If the football games featured the Green Bay Packers or the Minnesota Vikings, it was wonderful. If one of those teams got to beat up on the Dallas Cowboys it was all the sweeter. If not, well it didn’t matter. We were all together, fed, chattering and soaking in the lovely tradition of togetherness and the lingering scent of sage dressing.
It’s enough to make a turkey dance, all on its own.