Growing up, I ate a lot of stewed squash. Textureless, tasting mostly of butter and salt, stewed squash barely belies its origins as a smooth, crisp summer vegetable. And it was only...
In many ways, I've gone astray as a southern cook. I spent several years as a vegetarian, and now I tend to embrace a wide range of foods, from fragrant Vietnamese soup to spicy Indian dal to vermilion Spanish paella. World cuisine simply holds too many treasures for me to be content with the food of my childhood.
However, there are some things I'm downright persnickety about. Biscuits are one of those things. Biscuits are round and made with White Lily flour, butter (if you can't get your hands on good lard), and buttermilk. They are baked in a cast iron pan, and preferably served with sausage gravy. That's just how it is. I've had square biscuits, whole wheat biscuits, and biscuits made with yogurt. They were fine, but they weren't really biscuits. Not in my estimation, anyway.
Cornbread is another of those things. It's hard for me to take sweet cornbread seriously. Call it cake if you want, but it's not cornbread. I also have a hard time with cornbread that doesn't start with bacon grease or lard. You don't need much of it, but it needs to be there. Cornbread deserves the hot sizzle of a cast iron pan, and whether you use white or yellow cornmeal isn't as important as the quality of the cornmeal. Stone ground coarse cornmeal is best.
Perhaps this cornbread mania is why I prefer a cornbread dressing at Thanksgiving. But whether or not you have a similar obsession, it's hard to argue about the fact that cornbread dressing is just the thing for a plateful of roast turkey, cranberry sauce, and salty gravy. If, of course, you can refrain from eating the cornbread straight out of the pan.
The really luxurious thing about this dressing is the addition of oysters. The oyster liquor flavors the dressing nicely, and getting a mouthful of succulent oyster is a pleasant surprise (if you like oysters!). You can cut the cornbread into larger or smaller chunks depending on how you like your dressing. I tend to favor larger pieces, but either way, the dressing soaks up gravy very nicely. A truly high calling indeed.
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Prepare the cornbread. This may be done several days in advance. Preheat the oven to 450˚F with a 9-inch cast iron skillet inside. Add to the skillet and allow to liquefy:
1 tablespoon bacon grease, lard, or shortening
Whisk together in a large bowl:
1 3/4 cups coarse cornmeal, yellow or white
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Add and whisk to combine:
2 cups buttermilk
Pour the batter into the hot skillet. Bake until the top is browned and the center feels firm when pressed, 20 to 25 minutes.
Decrease the oven heat to 400˚F Allow the cornbread to cool enough to handle, and cut into cubes. Toast in a single layer on a baking sheet until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Turn into a large bowl.
Melt in a large skillet over medium heat:
1/2 stick butter
Add and cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes:
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup finely chopped celery
Remove from the heat and stir in:
1/4 cup minced parsley
1 teaspoon dried sage or 1 tablespoon minced fresh sage
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Add this mixture to the bread cubes along with:
1 pint raw oysters (about 24 shucked oysters), with their liquor
1 cup toasted pecans
If the dressing is still dry, add chicken stock as needed. If you desire a firm dressing and are baking in a separate dish, stir in:
(2 eggs, beaten)
Spoon the dressing into a baking dish and bake until nicely browned, about 30 minutes. If you insist upon stuffing a turkey with this dressing, you must make sure that the stuffing reaches an internal temperature of 165˚F.