My Grandmother’s Dressing

This post follows the one describing my Grandmother’s biscuit recipe, but here, I’m going to go a little into the history of cooking. I have done extensive research into cooking, specializing in 18th and early 19th century American and German cooking in my museum work. I have edited a book on translated German recipes, cooked whole meals over an open hearth fire, and baked in large beehive ovens. The more I have cooked using 18th century recipes, and learned about cooking before the use of baking powder and electric ovens, the more I see the connections between recipes we use today and those common in the 1700s. Many dishes served at Thanksgiving are modern versions of common ones from that time period. One of the most common was bread puddings, which is what a stuffing or dressing began as. When we hear that ‘bread was a staple’ in the past, we often think of people eating a lot of bread slices or rolls, since that is how we eat it. But often, bread would be used in a different form once it began to dry out. One of the most common was to grate it up (or tear or cut it apart) and soak it in liquid, adding other things as the occasion dictated, and then cooking it as a new dish. These were the bread puddings. One of the most common ways to cook them before 1800 or so was to boil them, but in the 19th century it became more common to bake them. These bread puddings could be sweet or savory, have fruit or meat, and might be solid or easily broken apart. There were all different kinds, and they were a very common addition to the table. It is a really good way to use stale bread! So with this history in mind, I introduce you to my family’s version of Thanksgiving dressing, which is truly an old-school bread pudding, using all the leftover breads that might be hanging around the kitchen. This dressing will be a solid, baked dressing. It is cut into squares for serving, and gets a generous topping of gravy. But it is very typical of a 19th century savory baked bread pudding, and it’s a favorite for us.

10-12 biscuits 
1 pan of cornbread (equal amount to the biscuits)
3 cups Pepperidge Farm Herbed Stuffing
    (you can use stale bread crumbs instead)
1 medium to large onion, minced or chopped small
1 cup celery, chopped small
2+ cups cooked turkey or chicken, cubed or shredded
2-3 Tbsp ground sage
~1 tsp salt (you can use less or more to your taste), pepper to taste
1/2 stick of butter, melted
3-4 eggs, well beaten (3 jumbo is fine)
2 quarts chicken broth
(you can make this vegetarian;
    leave out the meat, and use vegetable broth instead)

[One thing about the biscuits and cornbread. I recommend my Grandmother’s biscuits, but I have used Jiffy Biscuit mix to make these as well. As for the cornbread, you are welcome to use whatever cornmeal you want, but I do not recommend putting flour in it, and do not put any sugar in the cornbread. The texture of cornbread with flour is too cake-like for this dressing (if you haven’t made it this way, just look up traditional or southern cornbread, it should have only self-rising cornmeal, egg, buttermilk or milk, and butter in it). The point of having the cornbread is its grainy texture. Don’t worry if it isn’t what you eat normally; you will be mixing it into the dressing anyway, which will have plenty of flour from the biscuits and bread!]

The recipe above makes a lot of dressing, my Grandmother cooked for a large farm family! You are more than welcome to make half this recipe, and you will still have a lot. I use a two gallon pot to mix this in, so I don’t have to be careful about stirring. (However, this does freeze very well. Just mix it up, put the uncooked mix into an aluminum pan, cover tightly and freeze. It can be cooked the same as described after defrosting overnight.) Heat the oven to 425 degrees. First, all the breads need to be stale; it should be 2 days old before making this dressing. The stale biscuits and cornbread will crumble easily, but fresh just tears in big chunks. Stale bread also soaks up the liquid better. You need to crumble the biscuits and cornbread into small bits. The cornbread will do this easily, the biscuits you might need to rub a little to get smaller pieces. Once that is done, add the stuffing mix or stale bread crumbs (my grandmother would have used the stale bread crumbs, but the family started using the stuffing mix as a shortcut, as stale bread was harder to have available). Mix all well, then start adding the next 3 ingredients. The easiest is to add the chicken and stir, then the onions and celery and stir. If you want to have a smoother taste and texture, you can sauté the onions (cook in butter or oil until translucent) to soften them. At this point add sage, salt and pepper. You are welcome to add less or more to your taste, but the amount of sage is what we use. It is a strong flavor in this dressing, so feel free to add less if you don’t like it. At the end, add the wet ingredients. You may not need all of the broth, but you want the dressing to be thick and goopy (this is the best word I can come up with; the dressing mixture needs to be very wet, so that it won’t dry out with cooking). Butter a large baking dish (glass works best) and pour in the mixture about 2-3 inches thick. Smooth out the top, and put in the preheated oven. Depending on the size of the baking dish, you will need 40-45 minutes to cook (if it is a small dish, you might only need 35 minutes). You want to see the top and sides brown before you take it out, which is why you wanted to start with a wet mixture. If the mixture isn’t wet enough, it will dry out before getting the browned top and edges. Once you take it out, you can serve it immediately (or it can sit for a while), just cut out serving portions and serve with plenty of gravy. You now have a traditional dressing/bread pudding!

The Unfolding of Language

If you have any interest in language and its origins, this book gives a wonderful study of how something as complicated as language could evolve from basic building blocks. The author uses examples from many different language groups, but you don’t need to be good at learning languages to understand the examples. I love reading about the changes in language, and I usually read those that describe the evolution of English (I am really not very good at other languages). I have read textbooks on the English language, so yes, I am a bit of a linguistics nerd. But this book is one of the better ones for making the changes understandable, without the reader having to understand the terms used in linguistics. It is easy to see that the author, Guy Deutscher, loves the study of language. I highly recommend this book as both an in depth study on language evolution, and also a very fun and interesting book to read.

Blog Navigation

My blog posts will be about a wide range of subjects (this blog is ‘a little about everything). All of them will appear in reverse order on this page, and you are welcome to scroll through. However, you may be interested in only certain subjects. To read those without having to search through them all, you can click on a category heading located at the top of each post, or a tag link found at the bottom of each post. The categories will be subjects such as Gardening, Poetry, Cooking or general Blog Posts. The tags will be sub-categories, such as Seasonal (Gardening), Poetry Author (such as Emily Dickinson), Recipes, and other similar sections. Clicking on those links will give you just the posts from that category or tag. At the beginning this will be a small number for each group, but hopefully it will make navigation easier when there are more listed here.

Poetry – Miniver Cheevy

When I read poetry, I look for something that speaks to me. As someone who has studied history for so long, and made a career in educating the public by wearing the clothing and doing some of the work of the 18th century, this poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson certainly spoke to me. I usually don’t get this sarcastic or ironic about the subject, but I have often been told by people ‘It must have been so much better back then,’ or ‘It was simpler back then.’ As a history professional, I would need to gently tell people that really, it wasn’t that different ‘back then’ than it is today. Each person lives in the time they do, which sounds too simple, but actually means quite a lot. We live in the time we are best adapted to live in, which is when we are born. We wouldn’t do well shifting to a different time, and if we were born in that time period, then we wouldn’t know about this one to compare! The past really wasn’t less complicated to anyone living then than our lives are to us now. And this poem, in a way that I think makes us laugh a little at the character, is telling us just that.

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
     Grew lean while he assailed the seasons
He wept that he was ever born,
     And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
     When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
     Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not
     And dreamed, and rested from his labours,
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
     And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
     That made so many a name so fragrant,
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
     And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
     Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
     Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
     And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the medieval grace
     Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought, 
     But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
      And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late
     Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
     And kept on drinking.

Edwin Arlington Robinson
1910, The Town down the River

My Grandmother’s Biscuits

I won’t usually post recipes, but for Thanksgiving, I though I would share two family ones. This post will have a follow-up, titled My Grandmother’s Dressing, which is a family tradition. However, you need the biscuit recipe to really make the dressing the best it can be, so I’ll start with this one. This is going to be long, but biscuits are a serious business! A little background – my Grandmother baked biscuits every day for over 40 years. My dad grew up on a farm, and biscuits were the bread everyone ate at mealtimes. These biscuits could also be put in the pocket and taken out to the field for snacking when priming tobacco. I used to watch her make them every time we visited when I was in kid in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The best thing was getting my own ‘hoecake’, which was the last of the biscuit dough in a small iron pan, with divots pushed into it with a knuckle, and baked just for me. The divots let it get a bit more crispy on the top, and I loved it (she also churned butter, and that is the best to eat on a hot biscuit). While I always watched her make biscuits, and sometimes helped, my brother and I didn’t start making them on our own until after she died. We went to our Aunts (Shirleye and June) who still made them, and learned the technique in a couple of lessons. The main thing about making biscuits is getting a feel for the dough as it is mixed. You will just have to do it a few times to understand, but trust me, you probably won’t make them great the first time. Try again, you’ll get better each time.

 The first thing you need to know is that these are not the ‘flaky’ biscuits like out of a can (my Grandmother called those ‘wompum biscuits’, because you womped them against the table to open the can; she thought it was a pretty funny way to make biscuits). These are tender biscuits, as I believe people call them today in the cooking world. I call them the best biscuits, and anything else is just settling. The other big thing about these is how the fat is added to the mixture. I have never seen this technique described anywhere else, so I have no idea how it started, though there are very likely other home cooks who have family recipes like this. The fat (in this case shortening, which is important, don’t change it to butter) is put into the buttermilk and broken up, then the fat and liquid is worked into the flour. I know, everyone says to cut the fat into the flour first, then mix in the liquid, but trust me, this works. I make these regularly, and it is just fine. Now, one thing I need to start with – I don’t actually measure anything but the flour, so while I have put in these measurements for fat and liquid, there is some room to adjust the buttermilk to get the right texture (especially if you use whole buttermilk, which is thicker). Most likely you will need to make a few batches to get a feel for the way you need to mix the dough up, especially if you haven’t made biscuits before. Another thing you will need to have is White Lilly Self-Rising Flour. You won’t be able to use another flour, sorry. If that isn’t available, then I suggest buying Jiffy Biscuit mix and using buttermilk to make them up instead (if you don’t want to do all this work, that is a decent substitute). Sorry for this if you live outside the South, but there really isn’t any substitute. White Lilly Flour is made from soft winter wheat only (the kind that grows well in the South), which makes up good biscuits. (Hard wheat is better for bread and is grown in the Midwest and Plains states, it’s in all other brands of flour.) If you are absolutely determined to try this without White Lilly, then try to find pastry flour, it may work. I have never tried it, but if you want to give it a shot go right ahead, I just can’t vouch for the result.

2 cups White Lilly Self-Rising flour, sifted
1/4 cup Crisco, or shortening brand of your choice
~3/4 cup buttermilk, whole or low-fat (you might need a little more)
2 Tbsp melted butter
(You are welcome to half this recipe for about 6 biscuits)

Preheat the oven to 450°. You must sift the flour. You can put the flour into a hand-held sieve, then use a spoon to sift it into a wide or deep bowl, but you can’t skip this step. When I first started, I didn’t do this, because I thought it was just an extra step my Grandmother did that wasn’t necessary anymore. Boy, was I wrong. Sift that flour, it will make all the difference in the texture of the biscuits. You can also sift a little extra for rolling out at this point, about 1/3 cup should do it, just make sure to take out that amount before adding the buttermilk. At this point, make a well in the flour and pour in your cold buttermilk. I usually wait to take the buttermilk out of the fridge just before doing this, but do make sure it is cold. Now the weird part. You need to break up the Crisco, or the shortening brand of your choice (or lard, if you want to get really old-fashioned, my Grandmother was using Crisco by the time I was born).  I do this by taking a table knife and just putting bits of fat in with the tip until it is all in the buttermilk. You can also put it in as a lump, then break it up in the buttermilk with your fingers, but you need to move quickly because you don’t want to warm up the milk and shortening with your hands as you work it (my Grandmother did it this way, but she definitely knew what she was doing). If you are doing this the first time, I recommend the knife, as you can mix it quicker into the buttermilk in small pieces.

Once the shortening is in those small pieces, start pulling in the flour from your well walls, and mix it all together. You are going to need to use your hands for this and get messy, so have a couple of paper towels to clean up with; trying to use a spoon or fork to mix up the dough won’t work (it beats the dough too much, your hand is gentler). The trick here is not to overwork the dough. You need to move fairly quickly with mixing in the liquid and flour together. Once it is mixed, sprinkle some of the sifted flour from the reserved 1/3 cup onto your board, and spoon out the dough on top. Your dough should be a bit wet and fluffy (you’ll need to wipe your hands off after mixing it together), because you are going to be adding a little bit more flour to it as you pat or roll it out. When the dough is on the board, sprinkle a little bit of flour on top of the dough, then fold it over a couple of times, sprinkling just a bit of flour in as you work. Again, don’t over do this, but you need to work it a couple of times for it to cut out.  When it is smooth on top, either roll or pat it into about 3/4 to 1 inch thick and use a biscuit cutter to cut out (it depends on how thick you want your finished biscuit; the first time, you can make some thicker and some thinner, then decide which you like best). Keep the cutouts close together on the dough. At this point, I will let you know a secret. The best biscuits are baked in an iron pan. If you have one, use it. Otherwise, spread a little shortening on a dark baking sheet (try not to use nonstick, it really isn’t any good for these), and place the biscuits on it, not touching, and with a little space around each (the biscuits in the picture above were made for dressing, when it doesn’t matter if they touch; you are welcome to do it that way if you prefer). You can gently roll up the excess dough and cut again, but don’t do this more than one time, using any excess dough as a hoecake or free form biscuit, because overworking will make the dough tough. Use a pastry brush to dab melted butter on the top of each biscuit, then put in the oven for about 15-18 minutes (this will vary with your oven so watch them). When the tops are golden, take the biscuits out, and eat immediately with anything you want. Yum!

Poetry-Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is my favorite poet to read. In general, I like to read individual poems from poetry collections; while I often like a number of poems by the same author, I usually don’t read a book of one poet. Emily Dickinson is different for me. I have several books of her poems and I enjoy reading through them, though I do have my favorites! In my opinion, if you want a poet who knew how to take a few words to convey a lot of emotion and context it’s hard to beat Dickinson. If you read some of her poetry in school and liked it, I would suggest looking through several publications. The first publishers of her work in the late 19th century edited her original manuscripts after her death, changing some words to ‘fit’ better, taking out odd punctuation, etc. There are more modern publications that have removed those changes, and adhere better to the original format Dickinson used in her writing (if you are interested in different versions, check out this link to Harvard University Press that covers all of them) . Personally, I like the later published versions, though if you are used to the smoothed out publication, it might seem a little choppy to read the manuscript format. There is a lot more punctuation in the form of dashes to separate words, and seemingly random capitalization. While it looks a little strange at first, if you read through it, you begin to get a different rhythm to the verse with these changes, and it can make a big difference to the meaning. There is a website that shows a number of the original manuscripts of Dickinson’s writings if you are interested, called the Emily Dickinson Archive. An example of this change can be seen in poem number 441 (Dickinson never put titles on her poems). The original published version is first, and my transcription from the original written version (at the Emily Dickinson Archive, manuscript owned by Harvard University Press) is below. You can easily see some of the changes made, and even why a publisher would decide to smooth out the form. However, I like reading the second version, because it takes on a different cadence and I feel I understand the meaning better.

This is my letter to the world
   That never wrote to me, -
The simple news that Nature told,
   With tender majesty.

Her message is committed
   To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
   Judge tenderly of me!
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me -
The simple News that Nature told -
With tender Majesty -

Her Message is Committed
To Hands I Cannot see -
For love of Her - Sweet - Countrymen -
Judge tenderly - of Me

Emily Dickinson Archives
Houghton Library, Harvard University

Building a Terraced Garden

I started building gardens because my mom has always been a big gardener, and I never wanted to do all the upkeep it takes, but I love planning and building things. So I started building new garden areas for her to plant and upkeep. It meant I got to do what I love, and she got to do what she loved, so everyone was happy! (Dad went along with it, since he likes figuring out how to build things, too!) I started about 20 years ago by building a couple of ponds and designing walkways for the back yard, then made a rock wall about 2 years later that used about 13 tons of rocks, and just kept going. I do a lot of the planning and physical labor, with Dad helping with problem areas. So for this entry, I’ll describe the first half of building a terraced garden on a steep hill at the back of the property. One thing I always do is use whatever we have around to build with, so that we buy as little as possible. I think it also makes the finished product look more natural. So this garden started with a really overgrown hill about 20-25 feet down and about the same across. First the ivy and undergrowth had to be cleared, which was done by pulling it all up by hand. We really hate to use poison, and ivy will actually come up pretty well by just pulling it up. I’ll confess, I didn’t do this part (thanks Mom!).

After that, I planned out where the logs would go for terracing. For pictures of this process, check out my Gallery page, and you can get an idea of how steep and big this space is. There was a lot of precarious balancing when I was digging in the first places for logs. Once I had a platform dug for a log, I rolled or moved it down from above, and then put in rebar to hold the rest of the logs in place. Generally, I did 3 or 4 logs up to create a terrace. Once these spaces were created, I threw down dirt from the top to fill in the new space. There were also some small terraces I created to have smaller areas to plant down the hill. One of the things I like to do is look at the shape of the space, and work with it. I don’t try to force my own design on the land, but just look at what is already there, and make it a little easier to plant. I also built a staircase from old pieces of slab concrete, some of them from when my parents moved into the house (my dad grew up on a farm, you don’t throw away useful stuff😉).  For the staircase, I dug platforms into the hillside, starting at the top, put one of the slabs in place, then worked my way down the hill, building stairs as I went. I would slide the heavy concrete pieces down beside the staircase as I got further down, some of the bottom ones were probably about 100 pounds.

Once all of the stairs were in place, I built some more terraces along the side for planting areas. The final addition was putting in the railing about 6 months later, using uprights driven into the hill, and screwing on tree limbs from fallen trees to create the rail (Dad does the drilling; at under 5 feet tall, I have some problems with leverage!). It worked out pretty well!

If you are considering doing something like this, the main thing to keep in mind is to plan, plan, plan. It is a lot easier to adjust what you want to do later, if you have planned the steps to get there from the start. ‘Winging it’ rarely works out well, or at least involves a lot of cursing!

About the Website

The reason I started this website was for a grad school assignment, but the reason I designed it this way is to continue doing what my whole career has been about – helping people learn new things about history, science, people, and sometimes just trivia that is neat to know! I have divided the site into some different areas. This blog is where I will put descriptions of projects I have done and what I learned while doing them, some of the activities and skills I learned to do while working in a living history museum for over 20 years, and suggestions for anyone wanting to try out any of these things themselves or just learn more about them.  The gallery will have pictures that relate to any of these blog posts, so that visual learners can get more out of it. I also love collecting quotes and poetry that speak to me, so I will have some of those highlighted in their own sections. I also plan to include a Recommendations page that will give some books and websites that I like or have found helpful.

So that’s a run down of what I plan to do with this website. I am learning how to work the design tools while I go, so if you are here early in the process, be patient with me! I have a lot of experience with writing text for media, training, and the public, but I have never run a website design before, so hopefully the information will be fun, even if the design needs a bit of work!

A New Start

It’s the standard question for every kid – What do you want to do/be when you grow up? Once you get to be an adult, you quickly realize that the question never has a final answer, you simply change the ending – next year, in five years, in ten years. When I was a kid, the answer to the question was ‘I want to run the Smithsonian Museum.’ (I don’t think I was quite that ambitious, but hey, go big or go home!) Really, it was more about what I wanted to do, instead of where. I wanted to talk to anyone about anything they were interested in, and as a child, the Smithsonian Museum seemed like the place that had something of everything.

As an adult, the answer to the question hasn’t really changed; I still want to learn everything I can, so that I can have a conversation with anybody about their interests, and be able to contribute to the conversation. I started my career with a degree in history, and moved into the museum profession soon after. I worked for Old Salem, a living history museum, for over 20 years (not the Smithsonian, but turns out I really like living in North Carolina). Now I am looking at new career options as a graduate student in Library and Information Science at UNCG. To be honest, I think I’m still working toward my goal as a kid. Working at a library means helping people find information they want and need, and I can’t think of anything more interesting than that!

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