December 1998


Topsham, Devon December 17, 1998 "I'm afraid," wrote my brother David in a Thanksgiving post-mortem e-mail last month, "that I am forced to the conclusion that there are some poor souls in the world for whom stuffing is just not that big a deal." Having gone to friends to share the Thanksgiving meal, he had left the stuffing to be made by others.
I had pointed out to him the serious risk at the time, so he has only himself to blame and knows it full well. For in our family, stuffing has always taken pride of place, the turkey (or lately sometimes goose) being a mere adjunct, or side condiment, to the far more serious main element, the stuffing. Therefore, I myself took no such risks and so was entitled to feel quite smug (as well as stuffed) after the event. Having been invited to join the Kenyon/Exeter group of faculty and students at the Royal (Bridge) Inn as has become tradition, I volunteered to make the stuffing. "There's no need," said Amy, our friend and wife of this year's visiting Kenyon professor, Sergei, "Kenyon (and the caterer) provides." The meal, I must say, is indeed always splendid, virtually faultless. Juicy free-range turkeys are roasted by our town butcher Arthur's. Everything else is provided by Maureen, a fine local cook, who has over the years come to appreciate the more subtle distinctions between American Thanksgiving and the English Christmas Day meal by mastering the art of nicely spiced pumpkin pie, moist buttery sweet potatoes, and copious amounts of good gravy. English eccentricities do slip in -- sprouts, for example -- but on the whole the meal is authentic and plentiful, and it is always a delight to relax in the 14th century malthouse of the Royal while supping on pints of excellent ales drawn from the cask by Caroline and Norman.
However, stuffing in past years has been something of a weak point, I think it would not be unfair to say. Therefore I insisted this year on bringing a supplementary supply: not knowing exactly how many would attend, I made sufficient to feed about 80. Needless to say, I was eating leftovers for well over a week, though quite happily so, I hasten to add, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, ate it in fact until I could hardly move, then reclined in that happy state of pain, that particular overstuffed feeling that can at times verge on sickness and which is the true hallmark of Thanksgiving in its essence.
What is it about stuffing that is so important to so many of us? It must be a cultural thing. Stuffing, after all, is at heart a peasant -- or perhaps from the American point of view, an immigrant -- tradition, a means of stretching out a meal, of making a little meat go further. Yet like the finest foods from such traditions, necessity brings out creative ingenuity to result in a dish that is at best far greater than the sum of its humble parts. Indeed, stuffing is almost always made from the simplest and most unpromising ingredients leftover in the store cupboard, some stale dried bread (cubed not crumbs, a critical distinction) as its base, giblets that would otherwise serve no purpose once boiled up to make the stock for the gravy, an onion, a stick of celery or two, some dried herbs, and perhaps some chestnuts or other nuts, dried fruit, mushrooms, whatever else is at hand, all highly seasoned with salt and pepper (I like to add a little chilli), moistened with milk, a beaten egg or two, some melted butter or turkey or goose fat. And yet what glorious and delicious variation exists within this basic framework (David, for example, always includes spicy Italian sausage, a most propitious and tasty addition)!
Traditionally stuffing is just that, cooked within the cavity of the bird (or meat joint -- a leg of pork, a rolled breast of lamb, for example). The stuffing helps to keep the meat moist, and in glorious exchange, the juices and drippings from the meat serve to flavour the stuffing. At the risk of sounding heretical, however, we have found over the years that better results may come from cooking the stuffing outside not within the bird. By spreading out the stuffing in a shallow roasting tin, and basting copiously with juices from the bird, then roasting alongside (or above) it in the oven, the flavouring of the meat is still imparted while the stuffing gains a slightly burnt crunch around the top and edges that to our way of thinking is the best bit of all. Stuffing cooked within the bird, by contrast, risks being overly moist and stodgy, though in this critical matter, I readily concede that it is all a matter of personal preference.
Like a turkey at Christmastime, I have stuck my neck out on the proverbial chopping block and stated that stuffing is a cultural thing, my polite reasoning for why the British are on the whole so bad at it. Many's the time that I've been to marvellously prepared, deliciously celebrative meals that have been marred seriously by the sorry excuses that have been passed off as stuffing, even, dare I say it, stodge that has come directly and shamelessly from a box, with no attempt whatsoever to even jazz it up a little (no wonder it tastes like cardboard). It is as if the stuffing is so unimportant, such an insignificant element of the meal that it deserves nothing more; indeed, included in such a slapdash manner, it would be better, less insulting by far, simply to forget about it altogether.
Yet it is worth considering for the moment why this should be the case. Though certainly the English country house eating traditions of yore, and indeed the urban traditions of the middle and upper classes, would have precluded the sorry necessity of having to stretch out a meal with something so common as stuffing, there are nonetheless delicious precedents based on economic necessity: witness Yorkshire pudding, no more than a batter pudding of flour, milk and eggs, traditionally cooked under the joint of beef to catch the juices and dripping, and eaten before the meat in order to stave off the most voracious pangs of appetite. And surely one of the most curious of all British condiments, bread sauce (bread cooked in onion-infused milk to a stodge) derives from the necessity of stretching a meal a little further. Why, then, is most British stuffing so horribly wretched? The reason, I can only conjecture, is national pride. This is a country, after all, that lacks true peasant food traditions, such as are so deliciously and still unselfconsciously enjoyed throughout France and Italy; foods that remind of poorer, less prosperous times are not valued, and sadly, stuffing it would seem must fall within this category.
Of course, few of us these days actually need stuffing. The meat itself, turkey, for instance, is now so inexpensive as to cost virtually less than the ingredients for a decent stuffing (you can, for example, get a supermarket turkey for as little as 49 p. a pound). We could all -- or most of us anyway -- feast outrageously on meat, should we so desire, without the pressing economic need to make it stretch a little further. And yet, we Americans (or those of us like-minded folks, I qualify now that I've been startled with the realisation that not everyone necessarily shares our enthusiasm) cling fastly to our stuffing. Could it be that deep down in our collective unconscious immigrant psyche we recall times past when there was not plenty? Deep down do we fear that those times could even return? Or is it simply that we know and appreciate that variety and crunch and spice and seasoning born from poverty is almost always far more satisfying than the mono-flavour (however tasty and juicy) of meat and prosperity?
"Next year," concluded my brother, a sadder but wiser man, "we put our foot down: come hell or high water, we are making the damn stuffing!"

Stop Press 24/12/98 This year's stuffing for Christmas goose: fry gently in goose fat (or butter if you must) a couple of chopped onions and a bunch of chopped celery. Season copiously with plenty of black pepper and salt. Remove to a large mixing bowl. Fry a pound of skinned spicy Italian lucanica (or similar) sausage, then crumble or chop coarsely. Soak a pound of pruneaux d'Agen (no other will do) in a wineglass of Armagnac, preferably overnight, then chop coarsely. Coarsely chop a cup of hazelnuts. Mix everything together with a few cups of stale bread cubes and a cup or two of cooked wild rice or organic brown rice mixed with wild rice. Check the seasoning, and if satisfied, add more freshly ground black pepper all the same (it is hard to have too much black pepper). Bind the mixture with two beaten eggs and a little milk. Spoon into a well greased oven pan and cook in a moderate oven for around 1-1 1/2 hours, basting with the juices and (most important) fat from the goose.


Copyright © Marc Millon 2000


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