Why Is It Called “Stuffing” And “Dressing”?

Traditionally, turkey is served on Thanksgiving. It’s the star of the meal. However, some people are even more enthusiastic about its reliable sidekick—stuffing … or is it called dressing?

Americans are hardly the first people to stuff their roast birds. Evidence suggests in Ancient Rome and throughout the Middle East that people put bread, spices, and all kinds of other goodies into the cavity of a bird before roasting. By the 1500s, Medieval Brits were calling this seasoned mixture or whatever a bird was “crammed” with stuffing—also known as forcemeat. Either way, it was delicious.

Was stuffing served at the first Thanksgiving?

The first Thanksgiving may not have featured turkey. However, according to Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s account of the first Thanksgiving, “fowl” were on the menu. And, given what we know about the English fondness for forcemeat, it’s likely these birds were stuffed, although Winslow didn’t see fit to specify that part of the meal.

When President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, the quintessentially American bird of a turkey was quickly adopted as the de facto roast for the holiday.

However, it’s said that Victorian prudishness made the idea of “stuffing” a bird with something to eat a bit … distasteful. In Catharine Esther Beecher’s popular Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, published in 1850, she described stuffing beef with dressing, defined as “the stuffing of fowl, pigs, etc.”

But what is dressing?

This is where things get tricky. Since circa 1430, to dress a bird or other meat meant to prepare it for cooking. By the 16th century, it also referred to the particular seasoning of a dish.

So, dressing a turkey means to prepare and season it for cooking generally, with or without stuffing, right? Well, in 19th-century America, a dressed turkey often had dressing in it. You with us so far?

Over time, Americans lost their prudishness and went back to referring to dressing as stuffing—for the most part. In the American South, some ambiguity remains around the term.

Some Southerners today refer to the dish of spiced bread cooked in the pan around the turkey, or alongside it, as dressing. Others refer to this same dish as stuffing, even though it wasn’t literally stuffed into the bird.

What’s the best way to make stuffing?

Stuffing remains such a staple of the Thanksgiving meal that there’s even a National Stuffing Day, celebrated on November 21. Every family tends to have its traditions around what makes a good stuffing. Some make it from a box, others insist that you have to use stale bread. Others add everything from dried fruit to sausage to their stuffing recipes.

While we love stuffed birds ourselves, the USDA recommends not stuffing a bird “for optimum safety.” However, if you simply must make stuffing inside the turkey, be sure to mix the wet and dry ingredients right before you stuff and cook the bird.

Whatever recipe or cooking method you choose, it’s widely acknowledged that stuffing—or dressing—is the underappreciated staple of the Thanksgiving meal.

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