At this time of year, the question of stuffing can get territorial. There are those who want to try something new every year—cranberries, giblets, walnuts, wild rice, apricots! — and those who, having found their perfection, never want to mess with it from year to year. I fall into the latter camp—with tweaking.
I don’t remember if our mother always made her Italian style stuffing for Thanksgiving; I think there were more conventional early years of plain sage and onions. But for me, her chestnut and sausage version was the apotheosis of flavor and texture, and so it has remained. We forget how a little thing like stuffing can represent a radical departure in a family. Our traditions are wrapped up in family lore and the stories we tell around the dining room table and changing that by even a teaspoon can stir the pot.
As eldest sister, I have a long history of watching Mom. Looking back, I’m amazed at all we took for granted: her talent, her wit, her Italian persona. Mom was not Italian, but had lived with a family in Perugia for two years. This came about because Mom, a bit passive and accommodating as I saw her in the context of her marriage, always wanted to be an artist. But her parents insisted she go to a liberal arts college where she would become “well-rounded.” She would have more to say as an artist, they insisted. She paid them back by majoring in history of art, learning Italian, and going to Italy right after WWII. The experience shaped more than just her stuffing making. Peeling chestnuts late at night, she might tell you about the count who asked her to marry him in the most backward, passionless way, or her artist lover, as if you were her girlfriend as much as her daughter.
Nowadays you can find plain cooked chestnuts already peeled in jars or sealed packets, but in the 50s and 60s and 70s, adding chestnuts to stuffing was a labor of love involving raw nuts. First you had to slice an X on the bottom of each nut with a sharp paring knife so that steam could escape. We were the kind of family that never had a sharp knife. It was a chore that seemed interminable.
Next, you roasted them in the oven. Here, Mom had an advantage: a Garland restaurant stove, bought at auction by our architect father to accommodate six kids. Once they were done to perfection (always dicey to get that part just right), came the hardest part of this long job—peeling. I don’t know if you’ve ever bought a bag of hot chestnuts from a street vendor in a New York City park (I hear those days are long gone), but they don’t peel easily. They’re like little brains, with lots of convolutions and a thin inner skin. I remember late nights of peeling and talking, and the distinctive velvety texture of the inner shells. My mother must have been exhausted by Thanksgiving morning.
She would have ordered a 24-lb turkey, and we ate earlier in those days, so she would get up at 4AM to stuff it, sew it shut, and slide it into the oven in time for midday dinner. We’d wake to the smell of roasting turkey and aromatic stuffing as it slowly filled the house, building anticipation—of cousins and aunts and uncles and lovely Grandma coming, of delicious food. It was a mouth-watering smell full of the promise of warmth, laughter and feasting.
While you’re prepping Thanksgiving dinner, during the meal, and in the drowsy groaning aftermath, ask your older relatives for stories. Get details; get recipes.
Life is such a little arc, as my mother would say. Too soon, the stories will be gone forever.
The proportions are flexible; how big is your bird?
1 pound or so of Italian sausage (must contain fennel seed), removed from casings if necessary
2 large onions, chopped
Sage and rosemary and thyme as you like, but I find any stuffing is best with a little more seasoning than you’d think, since the flavors meld together in cooking, and could become indistinct. I use fresh garden herbs, usually still in the garden at Thanksgiving.
2 cups peeled, cooked chestnuts (Yipes! Don’t use marron glacés, they’re sweetened for desserts!)
Dried, stale bread cubes
Mom baked bread throughout our childhood, having been introduced to good bread in Italy. We never had Wonder Bread and found it horrifying — no bite. These days, one sister bakes beautiful artisan loaves, but I, having discovered I have celiac, use homemade gluten free cornbread. No one complains.
Fry the sausage in a large pan, breaking it up with a spatula. Do not drain. Add chopped onions, and when the onion is soft, the bread and herbs. You might add up to a stick of butter to moisten, but remember, the best stuffing is that cooked inside the turkey cavity, where the juices moisten it. If you have leftovers that don’t fit, add a little giblet stock to moisten, and cook covered.
Contributing writer Megan Johnson is a retired English teacher who holds a master’s degree in creative writing.