Gan Gan’s dressing and other Southern blessings

25 Nov


Just a pinch.

A cup or so.

A handful of that.

Whatever looks about right.

After-Thanksgiving dinner table discussions at my in-laws’ house invariably settles into one familiar conversation.

“Gan Gan, how do you make your dressing? Someone else has to learn how to make it before you’re gone. Are you going to teach us?”

The questions are always asked—by me, a cousin, my husband, a first-time visitor who has become infatuated with the dish—every single holiday.

Gan Gan (my husband’s grandmother) laughs.

“There’s not a recipe,” she says. “I just know how I make it.”

Gan Gan’s dressing is a wonderful concoction of cornbread, shredded chicken, saltine crackers, vegetables, spices (but no sage) of imagined variety.

But it’s all only imagined; she’s told us what’s in there, but without the evidence of a transcribed recipe, I can’t actually verify that for you.

And so it goes in the South.

If you were blessed enough to be raised by a Southern mother, grandmother, or aunt—or fed by an armada of church ladies–you know what I’m talking about.

Southern women own the best recipes in the world—for banana pudding, macaroni and cheese, shrimp n’ grits, hoppin john, chicken fried steak, biscuits, divinity—but none of those recipes are on paper.

They’re all recorded for posterity in these ladies’ heads, and in the “here’s what you do” lessons they’ve tried to give to their children, grandchildren and greats beyond that.

It’s the same way with my Mom’s sweet potato pie.

My favorite Thanksgiving dessert is a heavenly blend of sweet potatoes and sugar and butter and vanilla (I think) that’s better than any pumpkin ever dreamed of being.

But Mom doesn’t look at a recipe card or in a cookbook when she stays up late the night before Thanksgiving whipping it up.

She just makes it—with those pinches, handfuls, and dashes.

I’ve watched Gan Gan make her dressing, and I’ve watched Mom make that pie.

A few days after Thanksgiving last year, I tried to replicate the dressing.

The optimum word here being “tried.”

It was too dry, and not flavorful enough, and the accompanying gravy (also a treasured Gan Gan secret) wasn’t quite right. I had watched Gan Gan make it that year, and had even written down what I considered a pretty-accurate recipe for it.

Still, it wasn’t quite Gan Gan’s.

And that, I think, is the point.

It will always be Gan Gan’s dressing. And Mom’s sweet potato pie. And Miss Jane’s rolls. And Gran’s divinity.

Until I’ve become the recipient of the treasured secrets, or have become the bearer of my own secret favorites (I can make a mean red velvet cake and love to cook, so there’s certainly hope), I will do what all Southern daughters, granddaughters, nieces and adopted children do.

I will sit at the table with my fellow admirers and savor every single bite of the mystery and wonder that is Thanksgiving dinner.

And for that I am grateful.


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