Family Recipe Stories 1: Courtney Becks

Low angle view of smiling african american mother and daughter kneading dough and looking at each other in kitchen – null

At some point in my adulthood, I realized there was a dressing-shaped hole in my life. 

That is because though my late mother was not the world’s most brilliant cook, she could really make some dressing. Growing up, I would watch her make it — without realizing I was watching and would one day think back on these mental notes I hadn’t realized I was taking. The truth of the matter was that it took my mother a year to make those two pans of dressing on Thanksgiving and Christmas. All year she stored up burned pieces of toast and heels of bread in the freezer— to which she added freshly baked cornbread, newly toasted bread, and dressing mix from the store. After breaking down and mixing all those elements— sometimes using her hands— my mother added eggs, broth, celery, onions, and seasoning. After the first bake, Mommy would turn the dressing and add ingredients from the bird. The arduous path to dressing made its twice yearly appearance all the more special. 

The dressing Mommy made was a balance of fatty umami and aromatic elements like marjoram and tarragon that ground the heartier fare we tend to seek out during the cold seasons. 

Eating at friends’ and neighbors’ houses in my childhood taught me that one had to be choosy, if not outright wary, about the dressing one is willing to eat. Having grown up eating my mother’s firm, cornbread-based dressing, its success depended on nothing so much as mouthfeel. How perfectly it harmonized with the gelatinous sweet tang of cranberry sauce, the no-there-there flavor of turkey, and oily richesse of giblet gravy! In my youth and — embarrassingly, even in adulthood— I had the misfortune of eating what could only be described as soggy or mushy versions of this side dish. (Of course, these manifestations weren’t dressing at all — but rather its lesser sibling stuffing.) 

I missed dressing so much that I called my mother for her recipe in 2009. Unfortunately, my alarmingly dense effort did not do her proud. 

The last time I had my mother’s dressing was in 2012. I can smell it now. How painstakingly I husbanded that foil-wrapped slab once I got back to my house! Dressing, I found, can be a meal in itself. 

I guess it could be said that dressing has long played a role in my life. In 2019, I had dressing at a Kwanzaa event. I pounced on that joint in the food line. It was like hearing a language I hadn’t spoken in a long time. After my oldest cousin brushed off my request for a recipe in the most disrespectful way possible, I despaired of ever eating dressing again. Then, in 2020, I came across a recipe on the Divas Can Cook website.

But I have not made dressing yet. Does it always have to be so time-intensive??? (Or is that part of its beauty?) 

So, I got to thinking. Cornbread is obviously doing the heavy lifting when it comes to dressing. Hmm, why not…just cut out the middleman (?) and make cornbread that tastes like dressing?! I am either a genius or a fool. 

I was six weeks ago years old when it dawned on me that cooking is a very accessible way to express creativity. We warmly invite you to submit your family histories or stories and recipes by midnight January 20, 2021 Pacific Standard Time. ASALH will review and select recipes that best reflect aspects of the theme and the panelists will highlight the selected recipes in the panel discussion during the February 6th virtual event. The program will feature a stellar panel led by Gina Paige of African Ancestry, Inc. and will include Celebrity Chef Carla Hall, Professor and Author Dr. Stephanie Evans, and Actor and Author Daphne Maxwell Reid. 

About author

Courtney Becks is the Librarian for African American Studies and Jewish Studies Bibliographer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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