HAVE STUFFING, WILL TRAVEL by Kelly Yann
I know all too well that feeling when you just want a recipe, but you have to read a long winded story before you can get to it. There is a recipe at the end, but the important ingredients in this story can’t be bought in a store. This is from a time when recipes fit on a 3x5 card in a wooden box.
Thanksgiving is a holiday loved by many. I am not one of those people. Sure, I have fond memories of the family gathered at more than one table because we couldn’t all fit. Arguments and laughing, lots of wine, turkey mishaps, football on the television, and always eating more than we should.
The most popular item on our table was the stuffing. I tried to dig up the origins of this magical sausage concoction but did not succeed. Before my paternal grandmother wrote it on a recipe card, it could only have belonged to someone who possessed supernatural cooking powers.
My grandmother was born to Italian immigrants in Omaha in 1907. I’m not sure what brought her to Pittsburgh, but I’m sure it wasn’t the smog and constant darkness of a then industrious city.
My grandfather was born in Calabria, Italy in 1899. He came over on a boat when he was 14. For him, I believe the ocean crossing held the promise of a better life. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if he lived in Italy through two world wars.
I wish I knew how they met but I never thought to ask. They lived long lives and lived simply. Their hair was always done, she was always in a dress, and he was always in slacks and a button shirt. My grandfather would take a bus to the Strip District multiple times a week to get groceries. They raised my father and two daughters on the second floor of a duplex on Shaw Avenue in Squirrel Hill. The only thing big in this apartment was the dining room. In my memory, the dining table was Hogwarts level epic. It was around this table that the stuffing legend began before I was ever born.
Their son married my mother in 1963. My parents had a son and two daughters. My birthday falls right before Thanksgiving, sometimes as close as the day before, but never on. It’s possible my disdain for Thanksgiving comes from having to share the spotlight with it. There can be only one superstar in November, and I’m not playing second fiddle to a turkey. It was my fourth birthday when my mom decided she wanted to start her own Thanksgiving tradition and took over the cooking. This cooking would have to include the beloved, if not sacred, familial stuffing recipe.
I was a picky eater. I’m pretty sure I would have preferred a hotdog with ketchup to turkey dinner. So I didn’t eat the stuffing until much later in life. I remember, before I even ate it though, that it held a place of honor at the table. Leftovers were doled out with equity and extreme care.
This magical stuffing is not only good hot or cold the next day, no sir, it’s also good for breakfast, midday snack, lunch, appetizer, dinner and dessert. Maybe it’s the meat to bread ratio. Or maybe it’s the seasonings that feel like a big hug.
Those years of large family gatherings, I still enjoyed Thanksgiving. My parents would bring in the picnic table from outside and put it in the living room so that the men could watch football while they ate, and the women folk and children sat in the dining room. I know this all sounds quite sexist now, but this was another time with people born at the start of the century. Also, the women did all the cooking and dishes which didn’t change much in my family even as the decades passed.
Passing. A word used on Thanksgiving. Please pass the gravy. Pass the butter, the turkey, the corn…
But I also always think of those who have passed. My family never grew much. It only shrunk. Some family moved, and some of us decided not to have children.
So over the years, there was no second table and more leftovers.
Our partners joined in gatherings, but only my brother added a plus one to the bloodline in the form of my beautiful niece. Unfortunately for us, he did that in Connecticut. As he was forging his own family traditions with his extended family there, he couldn’t always make it home for Pittsburgh Thanksgiving. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and he made the family stuffing there.
My father died when I was 24. It was then that Thanksgiving lost all luster. Not having him at the head of the table, beaming with pride at his children, filled with so much love to have his family all together. This is what he worked hard for all year. This is why his father came to America. This is the holiday the best homemade wine was saved for after all.
We muddled through. My mom crying at the end of saying grace, “May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace”.
Turkeys got smaller…but the stuffing lived on. The same amount being made. It all doesn’t fit inside the bird, so you have to cook some in a casserole. The years that someone other than my mom would host Thanksgiving, my mom would still make the family stuffing as her contribution to bring. “Have stuffing, will travel” should be on my family crest.
My mom can no longer stand for long periods and cook. So for the first time last year, I made the stuffing. This was during Covid when we couldn’t gather together. I delivered stuffing to my sister and her wife, and to my mom. Have stuffing, will travel.
Even though my brother has also passed away, my sister in law makes this stuffing when she hosts. And I hope someday my niece and her family will too.
This year I will go the Strip District in my grandfather’s footsteps, buy my sausage at Parma, and go home to cook my grandmother’s stuffing recipe. Not because it’s Thanksgiving. I do it for the passing. The passing of traditions and love. This I am thankful for.
2 pounds pork sausage
One medium onion, chopped fine
5 stalks celery, chopped
1 package bread cubes
5 large Idaho potatoes
Salt, pepper, lots of sage and poultry seasoning. To taste
Brown sausage with onion and celery while bread crumbs are soaking in milk in a large bowl (just enough milk so cubes are moist).
Peel and grate potatoes (the best reason I know to have a food processor). Drain water from potatoes and squeeze out any excess. Add to sausage mixture and cook about 15 minutes. Add bread cubes, and seasonings to taste. If the mixture seems dry, you can add more milk.
Make sure you brown sausage in a pan large enough to mix everything together. I use the roasting pan that I cook the turkey in. This will stuff a bid bird with some left over to be cooked separately in a covered baking dish. But be sure to baste with turkey juices while it bakes (it tastes better). Bake stuffing in casserole dish at 325/350 for an hour or until hot.
Tips: Use frozen hash brown potatoes to save time. If you are not cooking a turkey, just the stuffing, drizzle turkey stock or chicken stock on stuffing while it is cooking.