Whether you call it filling, dressing, or stuffing (and whether you know that, to some, there is a distinction between each); whether you make it from sourdough, cornbread, or white bread (or spelt if you're sensitive to wheat or are Ancient Roman); whether you embellish it with chestnuts, oysters, cranberries or chorizo; no Thanksgiving table is complete without stuffing.
It plumps up in the roasting turkey's cavity and then cozies up to the finished product on your plate -- and both benefit, as your taste buds do (though your waistline doesn't), from a generous dousing of gravy. Like meatloaf, there are as many recipes for it as there are cooks to prepare it, and, also like meatloaf, nearly every cook thinks theirs is definitive. To its fans, the reason we call it stuffing is not the technical definition -- a working understanding of which could be "any food that fills, at least theoretically, a cavity in another food" -- but the obvious fact that you "stuff" it into "your face."
The details of what constitutes a stuffing leave room for interpretation, experimentation, and seconds. First, not all holiday stuffings are cooked inside the bird -- in fact, there is some concern that this is not ideal. Many Thanksgiving cooks solve the problem by cooking some stuffing inside the bird, while baking a separate pan of stuffing in the same oven and knowing that none will go uneaten. Secondly, not all stuffings are for stuffing into a turkey: in French cooking, it is common to work a filling such as duxelles into the cavity or under the skin of a fowl; while stuffed cabbage is a cornerstone dish in middle European cooking. Mexican cooking gives us chiles rellenos, and mid-century American kitchens give us both stuffed peppers and stuffed tomatoes. Serious gourmets, gourmands, and gluttons might indulge in a turducken, but this is not the first instance of stuffing one food animal with another -- it was been present in the cooking of ancient and medieval Europe.
As you plan your Thanksgiving feast, here are some suggestions for stuffing your bird -- and your face.
Pepperidge Farms. If you can get past the display of Orange Milanos, remember that Pepperidge Farms also sells bread and bread cubes. Their recipe for stuffing will be familiar to most children of the American heartland -- it is the basic stuffing which graced many of the Thanksgiving tables of our childhood. For newer cooks, it is one of the easiest, and for experienced cooks, one of the easiest to experiment with.
Martha Stewart. At Martha's online Thanksgiving guide, there are recipes for several different stuffings -- you may want to try Pecan-Cornbread Dressing or Traditional Chestnut Stuffing, or stick with the simple and good basics.
AOL. AOL Food offers Thanksgiving tips, tools, techniques and recipes. Try any of the stuffings in the online recipe library, or browse online features addressing everything from side dishes to soul food.
Whole Foods. Thanksgiving can be a challenge for vegetarians, vegans and individuals with food sensitivies. Whole has an online library of holiday recipes, with a section on stuffings, dressings and gravies. As you'd expect from this megaretailer, there is a gluten-free version, even one made with quinoa.
Home cooks. Isn't it heartening to see home cooks using the internet to share memories, ideas and recipes? More than a few such write about Thanksgiving, including, of course, stuffing. Take a look at this heirloom stuffing recipe, or leave commentary below to share yours.