The One About Aunt Bessie

In our family recycling our stories is a sentimental ritual. We re-use them the way other people pull their favorite seasonal decorations out of the attic. At Thanksgiving, we enjoy re-hashing the one about Aunt Bessie and the turkey dressing. While we’re out in the kitchen throwing a few million calories into a baking dish, my mother never fails to remind us how important it is to get Aunt Bessie’s dressing recipe just right. We all know the old story by heart, but it tickles us to hear her tell it year after year. We laugh as though we’ve never heard it before, and analyze one more time the role each character played in the melodrama.

The story actually begins with my grandmother. She died before I was born, but according to those who knew her, she mastered the art of light and fluffy cooking. Her food is always described with just those words by any who sat at her table – as in light and fluffy biscuits or dumplings, but most especially, as in light and fluffy turkey dressing.

Now in case any Yankees are reading this, and aren’t familiar with the term “dressing” let me take a moment here to educate. As a rule, Kentuckians don’t stuff turkeys because that’s just a good way to get food poisoning. But the real reason is that you can’t get enough stuffing inside a turkey to satisfy folks. Here we invite a crowd to come on by at holidays – all our in-laws and second cousins – and it takes several large casserole dishes of grease and bread to fill them up.

But back to Grandmother. She was unhappy with the gummy mess that many folks tried to pass off as fit to eat, and set out to create her own light and fluffy recipe. Finally, decades before James Bond captured the imaginations of American movie fans, she hit upon the secret: SHAKEN – NOT STIRRED. Well, to be historically accurate, she said, “TOSSED – NOT STIRRED,” but her distain for stirring was the same as Bond’s.
First, she poured the turkey drippings slowly over the bread and seasonings. Then, she gently
tossed the crumbs and drippings together like one might handle fragile, foaming egg whites.

Our family was so taken by my grandmother’s soufflé-like dressing that her method of tossing became mandatory. Like wine connoisseurs in other cultures, they became snobbish about their light and fluffy dressing and condescending towards others who were satisfied with whatever goop they stirred up.

After my grandmother’s death, Aunt Bessie carried on. She raised the dish to her own unique heights, honing the crumbs to just the right size and texture, and adding an extra pinch of sage or onion here and there.

On that never to be forgotten Thanksgiving, the family had gathered at Aunt Bessie’s for dinner. While the men folk swapped stories in the overheated living room, the women congregated in the kitchen. Each pitched in to help. Aunt Bessie assigned dear, quiet Aunt Elizabeth with the task of pouring the turkey drippings over the crumb mixture and getting the dressing ready to go into the oven.

No one knows what Aunt Elizabeth may have been thinking. Perhaps she wasn’t as enamored of light and fluffy dressing as the others were. Perhaps she was daydreaming and stirred before she thought. But stir she did.

When Aunt Bessie realized what Aunt Elizabeth had done, a look of horror descended over her face. Without a word, she snatched the dishpan of wet, mushy crumbs from Aunt Elizabeth’s hands, walked to the back door, and pitched all the dressing out for the cats.

In a flash, she was mixing up biscuit dough and rolling it out. After the biscuits were baked to just the right shade of golden brown, she set them out on the kitchen table to cool. She waited until they were cold to the touch before she ripped the biscuits into perfectly sized crumbs. Then she pulled more onions from the root cellar to chop, and meticulously measured out more sage, salt and pepper. Finally – she, herself,
tossed the crumbs and drippings together, and slipped the airy creation into the oven.

Aunt Elizabeth, according to the story, said absolutely nothing during this ordeal. What, after all, can a transgressor say in such circumstances? Nor did Aunt Bessie say anything. Again, what was there to say? The situation had to be corrected as quickly as possible – or Aunt Bessie’s dinner would be ruined.

No one waiting for the dinner said anything either. After all, light and fluffy turkey dressing – like a two-year-old country-cured ham or an aged barrel of Kentucky bourbon -- is worth waiting for.

©Georgia Green Stamper