Regional Differences Decide Whether It’s Stuffing or Dressing this Thanksgiving

Yes, yes, it is the question that rages every Thanksgiving: Is the correct word “stuffing” or “dressing” and what’s the ‘best’ recipe? Well, it all depends on where you live in the United States.

If you want to address the question from a culinary point of view, stuffing is what is cooked inside the turkey because it is ‘stuffed’ inside. Makes sense, no?  Dressing is what is cooked outside the turkey, ‘dressing’ up or enhancing the serving platter.

From a regional point of view, north of the Mason-Dixon Line, ‘stuffing’ is called stuffing.  That’s because ‘stuffing’ is an old English word dating back to 1538.  It’s practical and reflects the heritage of New England’s early settlers.

South of the Mason-Dixon Line, stuffing is generally called “dressing”. This choice of words occurs because holiday dining in the South was largely centered around the great rural plantations and elite townhouses of Charleston, Atlanta and the like.  There, with the help of black house slaves, dining was a more formal affair than in the farm kitchens of the North. It also reflected a baronial Scottish influence from the many pre-Civil War land owners.

After the Civil War many former house slaves found employment in the kitchens of northern hotels and the dining cars of the Pullman trains heading west.  As a result, the use of the word ‘dressing’ moved out of the South and spread throughout the nation mingling with the word ‘stuffing’.  Today it’s largely a personally choice which word you want to use.

As to what is the best recipe for Thanksgiving stuffing/dressing, that, too, is largely a regional question.  In the North a bread based stuffing with onions, celery, thyme and sage is the norm while in the Carolinas a rice dressing is the most traditional.

Cornbread dressing is a deep South favorite with bits of ham, country bacon or smoked sausage added.

Once both New England and Louisiana favored oysters mixed into the stuffing/dressing.   But sadly once the northern oyster beds were destroyed by over fishing and pollution, only the southern Delta area continues this tradition.

In Chicago and nearby parts of the Midwest where there are large eastern European communities, rye or other heavy Bohemian-style bread is often used to make a darker but great tasting stuffing. 

Out in California, creative cooks use sourdough bread as the basis for their stuffing/dressing with the possible addition of wild mushrooms, chestnuts and other often unusual ingredients such as artichokes.

In Texas, New Mexico and Arizona a corn based tamale stuffing with pulled pork, red chilies and rich raisins is a holiday must.

So this Thanksgiving you can ‘correctly” enjoy any of these amazing stuffings/dressings because that’s what America is truly about – diversity and community.  

We should all give thanks this holiday, no matter what our choice is, because we can all celebrate together – one nation in fellowship with each other.     

Happy Holidays!

Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2010

Posted on November 22, 2010 and filed under Holidays, Thanksgiving.