I rarely use a recipe. I cook by the memories of my ancestors. I know what a dish is supposed to taste like, and I know how to get there.
The stock. Last in, but first made. The fat, gelatin, skin, and bones of a take-home chicken from some too-tired-to-cook work night, thrown into the slow cooker with two bay leaves, a few onions, carrots, celery, salt, pepper, sage, and rosemary. White wine if there’s the bottom of a bottle hanging around. Some vinegar to pull the goodness from the bones. The acids lay down some dimension, and their forward taste takes a seat in the back of the room when everything’s said and done. Let that go for hours. When it’s time, pull out the solids with a colander, then freeze that gold until it’s called for. That’s how Mimi and Pipi would do it, too. Handy, since I make a Thanksgiving dressing with their ghosts as well.
Dressing is about diversity and abundance. Three loaves of bread. Sourdough. Darkest pumpernickel rye you can find. And a hearty loaf of wheat; extra seedy is good. Tear them all to bits the size milk bottle tops. Fill all your mixing bowls past what they can hold. Let the late autumn air suck the moisture out of them; or dry them out in the oven if you’re ready before they are. You don’t have to make croutons out of them, we’re just getting them thirsty for what’s to come.
In the biggest cast iron pan in the place, the one that handles Sunday mornings, drip a little oil in the bottom. When it’s warm enough to move like water, put in two pounds of Italian sausage. Bird sausage replaces pork sausage nearly unnoticeably. When it’s nearly browned all the way through, add those seven or so small onions chopped with the Red Pig knife from the grandmother on another side of the family. It’s alright that they pile above the top of the pan. They’ll cook down. When they do, pile on the chopped celery. Two full hearts.
In another pan, melt a whole block of Irish butter. Mimi never did get to Ireland. I wish she had, but dying with a few unfulfilled dreams means having never lost the ability to dream. Two full heads of garlic, chopped coarse for slow continuous release. Rubbed Sage. Rosemary. So much it seems indecent. Life is about flavor. Pour the herbed butter over the meat, onions and celery. Let it simmer a bit. Wash a few dishes.
In the big pot used for canning, the only thing in the place—aside from the bathtub—that will hold the whole thing with room to stir, dump in the bread. Pour everything from the cast iron pan in. Stir with gusto enough to dredge the good stuff up from the bottom of the pot and the generations. When it’s good and mixed, with so many shades of white, brown, and gray, without accumulations of any one thing in any single place, take stock, and add the cohesion. Stir more, getting the stock into every morsel, relaxing it, giving it some semblance of oneness.
In big heaping scoops, transfer it into a huge aluminum roasting pan. Cover it in foil. Tomorrow, it’ll taste like West River Street in Deerfield Michigan.