My grandmother Doris was a character. I called her DoDo until I was about 16 years old, when I realized it wasn’t nice for a child to call her grandmother DoDo…though it was always her family name. We lived with my grandparents growing up, moving from our beach house in Manhattan Beach, California to Fayetteville, Arkansas when DoDo and Pop (Doris and my grandpa Clem) retired from Houston and Mom and Dad divorced. Needless to say, the move was a bit traumatic, as I was a beach loving little girl who didn’t really understand what this place called “the Ozarks” was all about, and mom put us immediately into private school with a class of 14 students all of which were Catholic. In California it was a no brainer that a child should go to private school, in Arkansas, it just meant that math and English were replaced with hours and hours of religious studies on the wrongs and rights of the world taught by nuns and brothers. All very confusing for a girl who had also never really gone to church, except with her grandpa who was Presbyterian.
As traumatic as it was, it was also wonderful, as I had an opportunity to get to know my grandparents in a way most kids never do, and gained a sister in my cousin Chablis, who spent summers and Christmas with us, defining us as the “Three Chicks,” Daphne, Hayley and Chablis – a part we would play throughout our lives for Christmas Eve Entertainment where everyone in the family had to perform, and at family reunions when we could fall into “Little Nell” with the drop of a hat.
You see, Doris was a performer at heart. She opened a restaurant in her retirement strictly, as far as I could see it, so she could perform. She constantly wrote songs with her long time friend Morris and a boy who started washing dishes for at the age of 15 who became one of her most cherished friends and most accomplished composer, John. Years later John and Chablis married, bringing a romance that started when Chablis was a child full circle and proving that life-long love is a reality.
But more about Doris – she would sit on her barstool every night, with Morris or John by her side, singing her heart out to her adoring crowd at The Farmer’s Daughter, one of THE best restaurants at the time in Fayetteville, and call to the bar for her Jim Beam and Coke with a splash of water, which one of her University of Arkansas Rugby team waiters would run to her with urgency, and perform from open to close. As children we watched, often staying up past our bed time to witness the show, and then go late night to Martha’s Inn for midnight breakfast. As we grew, Daph and Chab had the chance to work the hostess stand in the restaurant, but being the youngest Doris often put me on salad duty or soup duty in the kitchen, perhaps at that point instilling both my work ethic and my love of cooking. I wasn’t a performer, Daphne and Chablis were, making me always more of a favorite to Clem than Doris; but the one time that I did shine with her was on Thanksgiving, cooking by her side after watching the Thanksgiving Day parade. This could be why I love cooking Thanksgiving dinner so much.
Though she owned a restaurant, Doris wasn’t the best cook….but one thing she did to perfection was her cornbread dressing. When I was in college she sent me the recipe, in her chicken scratch handwriting, that somehow along the way was lost. Lucky for me, my years of making it beside her is still paying off as I can pretty much replicate the dish I watched her make so many times, with a few tweaks here and there. There is nothing fancy about it, no goat cheese or pecans or oysters or sausage, just a good, old-fashioned Southern recipe that will take me home every time I taste it.
Doris’ Cornbread Dressing
2 boxes Jiffy Cornbread – made into muffins in advance according to the package directions
1 small can whole kernel corn – drained (optional)
6 slices white bread – crusts removed and toasted, cut into cubes
3 tablespoons fresh thyme – chopped
1 large white onion – chopped fine
2 tablespoons fresh sage – chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley – chopped
3 cloves garlic – minced
3 stalks celery – chopped fine
2 carrots – cleaned and chopped fine
Doris put in one green pepper, but we aren’t green pepper people – add if you like, chopped fine
1 jalapeno – de-stemmed and de-seeded, chopped (optional)
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning
1 tablespoon each salt and pepper
4 whole eggs – whisked slightly
3-4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
4 tablespoons butter
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large saute pan heat 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the onion, celery and carrot and saute for 5 minutes. Add the garlic, salt and pepper, poultry seasoning and pepper if using. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes. Add the herbs and the corn. If the veggies are too dry add a bit of stock.
Break the muffins up into pieces in a large baking dish. Mix in the white bread. Add the sautéed veggies and herbs and mix to incorporate. Add the eggs and 1 cup stock. Using either your hands or a large wooden spoon mix well to ensure every element of the dressing is combined, the egg will help bind the dressing, then pat into an even layer. Drizzle the whole pan with just enough stock to make sure the dressing is moist and cover with foil. Bake for 30 minutes covered, when uncover and dot with the remaining butter and bake uncovered for another 15 minutes until the dressing is golden brown. Serve with gravy, turkey and cranberries.