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Some of you might not know that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October rather than at the end of November. When I first moved to Canada as a child, I remember thinking it was odd that the US and Canada decided on different dates for such a big holiday, especially when Christmas was still the 25th of December even in the Great White North. Of course, before we moved one of my school mates in Florida asked me whether I was going to use snow shoes to get to school and live in an igloo. We were little and uninformed.

And then I moved to France and realized that it wasn’t just me. Everyone thinks Thanksgiving is an American phenomenon. I must admit that when we celebrate here – a tradition I’ve introduced to my Franco-French family-in-law – we celebrate in November. Not because I feel more American than Canadian. After all, I think a person feels most at home where their mother is and my mom is in Canada. But because when I learned about Thanksgiving and the pilgrims and Indians in about first grade, I was in the US. Somehow when I look back on it, all the tradition comes from those years I lived as an even smaller child in Alabama when my mother would make my great-grandmother’s Cornbread Dressing about we’d huddle around the TV to watch a football game.

My mom and sister still make this dressing every Thanksgiving and every Christmas in Canada. I even brought the recipe, an iron skillet, and some cornmeal over here to France with me so that I could carry on the tradition too. I wonder if my great-grandmother, a woman who once she was married never ventured beyond the boundaries of her county in Alabama, would ever have imagined that her recipe would be feeding people in Canada or, hold the presses, in a faraway land where they don’t speak English. I often wonder what she could think of the way life runs nowadays, how busy everything is, how complicated life has become.

When I knew her as a grandmotherly-type, her life was about stocking her lard in a tin beside the stove for the day’s homemade biscuits and fried chicken long before the days of Aunt Jemima, and sitting out on the rocking chair on the front porch with a glass of iced tea in her hand. I wonder if she ever imagined that one day her great-granddaughter would be serving up her special cornbread recipe to a table full of French people who eat cheese at the end of their meal. Makes me smile.

Nannie Bell’s Southern Cornbread Dressing (truly never had anything better)*

To accompany a dinner of 12, you’ll need:

For the cornbread: **

  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • (or rather than the latter three ingredients: 2 ½ cups (400g) Bob’s Red Mill Cornbread Mix – I bring this over from home, haven’t yet found a substitute in France)
  • 1 egg
  • 3 cups (¾ liter) buttermilk (lait fermenté in France)
  • ½ cup (120 ml) bacon drippings/ vegetable oil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt (if you are making the cornbread alone, use 1 tsp of salt. For the dressing, you’ll need the extra salt as the veggies dilute the taste.)

Preheat oven at 350F.

Heat bacon drippings or oil in medium-size iron skillet until sizzling. Meanwhile, mix cornmeal, flour, baking soda, egg, salt into a mixing bowl with wooden spoon. Add buttermilk bit by bit until mixture has a medium thick liquid consistency. (Add more or less buttermilk to obtain this consistency.) Pour hot oil from skillet into mix saving just enough to lightly cover the bottom of the skillet. Mix well. Pour the whole back into the hot skillet. Place skillet in oven for 45 minutes or until cornbread is golden brown.

For the dressing:

  • 1 whole celery chopped fine
  • 2 large onions chopped fine
  • ¼ cup (60g) butter
  • 1 whole cornbread, crumbled (see above)
  • 4 cups (1 liter) turkey/chicken/vegetable stock
  • 1 ½ tbsp salt
  • 2 tsp pepper

Preheat oven to 350F. Sauté the onions and celery in butter until onions are translucent. Remove from heat. Crumple cornbread, add to onions and celery. Add salt & pepper. Mix with wooden spoon. Pour stock over the whole: just enough so that the mixture is moist, not soupy. Stir. Grease a large rectangular casserole pan. Scoop entire mixture into pan. Do not pat down, leave peaks to crisp. Bake for 30 minutes until highest points of dressing are crispy and crusts are medium brown.

**Note: We always make at least two corn bread, as we eat one served with butter and use the other in the dressing.

*A small anecdote about this dressing: At Christmas time, my mom has her ham and turkey roasted by the butcher in our small town outside of Toronto. In exchange for the meat each year, she brings the butcher a huge platter of her dressing as full compensation for his efforts. It’s that good.

Simply the best. It’s just not Thanksgiving or Christmas in my family with it! Thanks Nannie, if you’re listening, and thank you Mom for teaching little one and me how to carry on this tradition.

Update: While making this cornbread dressing for a Thanksgiving dinner this year in Paris, I took some photos of the steps:

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