Grandma Lizzie's cornbread dressing / Renee Comet/USA WEEKEND
Growing up in Georgia, I didn’t know there was anything regional about Thanksgiving. In my family, Thanksgiving dinner was the basics: turkey and cornbread dressing, gravy, something with sweet potatoes in it, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.
It was usually at my maternal grandparent’s house, a couple hours away. They were dairy farmers, and my grandmother was used to cooking lunch for 30 hands every day. My mother was the only daughter, so she cooked too. When we went there for Thanksgiving, Mom would go to the kitchen to cook with her mother.
We ate early, after the Thanksgiving church service, then the grownups would sit around the table talking until it was time to eat again. The point of eating a big dinner early in the day is so you can eat twice!
It wasn’t until I was 20, moved to Nashville and got an apartment that I started to cook. I was homesick and missed mama’s cookin’, so I learned how to make a couple of things she made. I learned to make her cornbread dressing. It wasn’t hard and it tasted like home. That’s what made me love cooking — easy recipes that tasted like home.
The first time I made the whole Thanksgiving dinner by myself was one of the first years I was living in Oklahoma with my now-husband, Garth Brooks, and he volunteered me to host dinner for about 13 members of his family I had never met before. It was baptism by fire, but it actually turned out great.
In my modern family the meal is the same basic concept as my childhood Thanksgiving, though since I married Garth, we have sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes with giblet gravy because that says Thanksgiving to him. The cranberry-orange relish is something my sister Beth came up with, and it’s a lot a fancier than canned cranberry sauce — but I still have both on the table! For dessert we might do a sweet potato soufflé, pumpkin cheesecake or a pumpkin roll; it evolves, depending on the year.
The one constant is the cornbread dressing; it’s my favorite part of Thanksgiving. My grandma Lizzie taught it to our mother, and Beth and I made her write it down for our first cookbook, Georgia Cooking in an Oklahoma Kitchen. It’s important to preserve those family recipes. Writing the cookbooks together and then losing her really drove that point home to me.
This is our second Thanksgiving without her, but every time I make that cornbread dressing, I am connected with my mother. Food and memories are how we keep the people we have loved at the table with us.