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Dressing vs. Stuffing? It's No Contest in South Carolina

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Turkey, dressing, potatoes, salad, green beans
A little gravy is the perfect accent for Southern cornbread dressing.

In the South, cornbread dressing vs. bread stuffing is the culinary equivalent to the Hatfields vs. the McCoys. The question of which is more delicious and appropriate for the holiday table has been argued for decades with no sign of surrender on either side.

The warring factions here pit Southern traditions and tastes against that of our Northern counterparts. It’s an old story, and concessions are not expected anytime soon, if ever.  You can probably guess which camp South Carolina falls in line with. But we’re not itching for a fight—nope, not at all! Let all contentions be laid to rest for the sake of national unity.

With our commitment to peace firmly stated, let’s do some friendly examining of reasons why cornbread dressing is so deeply ingrained in Southern foodways and as much a part of our culture as grits or biscuits.

And if you’re a stuffing lover who happens to come away with a new appreciation for the superiority of dressing, well, let’s just call it collateral damage.

African American Heritage

Millet seed
Millet seed was used by African cooks to make "kush" - a forerunner to cornbread dressing.

The earliest ancestor of cornbread dressing as we know it is a dish called “kush.” Food writer and historian Michael Twitty says the word hails from Islamic West Africa and is related to the term “couscous,” a popular dish made from tiny balls of grains like semolina wheat or millet.

Kush in the South was born from the ingenuity of enslaved West Africans, who would take day-old cornbread (as a couscous substitute), mix it with onions, herbs and spices, then fry the concoction in a skillet to make a delicious cornbread hash. Twitty calls it the “grandmother” of Southern cornbread dressing.

As with so many dishes, the contributions of African Americans to Southern food culture cannot be overstated. Next time you take a mouthful of savory cornbread dressing, think about African American heritage and pause to remember those responsible for so many of our favorite dishes.

Easy to Make

Cornbread dressing
Cornbread dressing batter is baked until fragrant and golden brown.

Cornbread dressing isn't difficult to make. The aim is to get a moist result with a good balance of herbs and spices.

The ingredients are simple: day-old cornbread, celery, onion, butter, poultry stock, herbs (sage, thyme, rosemary and any others you prefer), egg and salt and pepper to taste. Some cooks add stale biscuits or white bread to the mix. The celery and onion are sauteed in butter, then added to the crumbled bread. Herbs and spices are folded in, along with a beaten egg and enough stock to achieve a somewhat soupy consistency similar to pancake batter.

Protein-wise, oysters are favored as a cornbread dressing ingredient in Charleston and the Lowcountry, while Florence and the Pee Dee tend to throw some country sausage in the mix. Gullah traditions are kept alive by cooks like Daufuskie Island's Sallie Ann Robinson, who makes a strong argument for the addition of chopped hard-boiled eggs and even bacon to the cornbread dressing. And don't forget the giblets, which can land directly in the dressing or the gravy that goes on top. 

But here’s the real beauty of cornbread dressing: While Northern cooks are busy shoveling stuffing into the poultry carcass, Southern cooks are pouring batter into a greased baking dish, popping it in the oven and taking a sweet tea break for a half-hour or so, depending on how much dressing they’re preparing. There’s no wrestling the raw bird, no fretting over overstuffing it and no worries about possible food poisoning from undercooked stuffing. 

Cornbread Goodness

Great cornbread dressing begins with great savory cornbread.

There are few things that tempt the Southern taste bud more than a savory wedge of cornbread hot from the oven. Not only is the rustic, grainy texture satisfying, but that definitive corn flavor mingling with melted butter and the slight tang of buttermilk is a melt-in-your-mouth experience that goes well with all Southern dishes.

In fact, you can pair your cornbread with a side of collard greens, peas and beans - or both - and have a completely acceptable and filling meal—no meat required. The same could be said for cornbread dressing, which can tastily anchor a meal made up of nothing more than a turkey wing and a little gravy.

The Best Ingredients

Cornmeal batter
For best dressing results, use cornmeal brands from South Carolina millers.

Of course, dressing is only as good as the cornbread it’s made with. Likewise, the cornbread is only as good as the cornmeal it’s made with. South Carolina millers have got you covered with products that are ground right here for the ultimate in freshness and flavor. Yellow or white? It’s your choice, though most Southern cooks opt for white when making cornbread for dressing.

Some of the brands you can find in markets, order online or purchase while visiting a local mill include:

Adluh - Columbia 

Altman Farms & Mill - Effingham

Anson Mills - Columbia

Colonial Milling - Pauline

Congaree Milling - Columbia

Boykin Mill - Boykin

Carolina Plantation - Darlington

Cotton Hills Farm - Chester

Marsh Hen Mill - Edisto Island

Palmetto Farms - Galivants Ferry

Timms Mill - Pendleton

It must be noted that there are some cooks who straddle regional lines and keep the peace by preparing both dressing and stuffing for family members who can’t see eye-to-eye. Again, we are dedicated to peace where these matters are concerned and applaud such brave demonstrations of dinnertime equity. In these instances, however, don’t be surprised when the cornbread dressing is the first to disappear—just sayin’.

Dressing for Dinner

Turkey, dressing, gravy, green beans, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce
Tucked beneath tender turkey, Wade’s cornbread dressing wows the crowds and is one its most popular dishes.
Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.