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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 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Riddle me this: What did Ms. Cornbread say to the bread stuffing?
Answer: Close the door—I’m dressing!

Go ahead and chuckle (or not), but the corny Ms. Cornbread brings up a serious topic that has long been drawing lines between the North and 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.

Was that the sound of shots fired? Oh, heavens, no. It was simply the clatter of the oven door being closed on a baking pan full of homemade cornbread dressing. Proceed!

African American heritage
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 its history and pause to remember those responsible for its creation.

Ease of preparation
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. You can give the dish more protein heft by tossing in a few tender oysters, some cooked sausage or even a chopped, hard-boiled egg. 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.

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. Egads! It’s a worrisome stuffing reality that requires due diligence and an accurate food thermometer to avoid.

Cornbread goodness
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 greens, 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.

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
Anson Mills, Columbia
Boykin Mill, Boykin
Carolina Plantation, Darlington
Congaree Milling, Columbia
Cotton Hills Farm, Chester
Geechie Boy, 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
Of course, you don’t have to make your own or wait for the holidays to enjoy this quintessential Southern delight. Here are a few restaurants known for making great cornbread dressing. Call to check availability as many use a rotating menu:

Barony House, Moncks Corner
Bee Box Restaurant, Ehrhardt
Big Clock, Powdersville 
Hoskin’s, N. Myrtle Beach
Jewel’s Deluxe Cafe, Darlington
Lizard’s Thicket, all locations
Smoke on the Water, Greenville
Summerton Diner, Summerton 
Wade’s Restaurant, Spartanburg
Webster Manor, Marion 

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.