A Bit of Personal Thanksgiving Tradition To Pass the Time: The Story Behind the Cornbread Stuffing

Now that my workout is done and while I drip dry a bit before showering the grime off and then getting the turkey I spatchcocked and wet rubbed last night in the oven, and since we could use a new open thread, I figured I’d regale you all with the story behind the cornbread stuffing I’ve previously mentioned my family makes for Thanksgiving. So here goes:

When my parents got engaged they were living in Columbus, OH. Mom had just finished her SLP masters and was starting to practice and dad was finishing his doctorate. Both at THE Ohio State University. That year – 1966 I think –  they decided they were going to invite a bunch of people over for Thanksgiving dinner. Mom figured that roasting a turkey was basically roasting a really big chicken, so all that was needed was to scale the cooking time up for the larger weight and size. But stuffing, well that was a huge mystery. So she decided to ask the nurses at the hospital where she was working. One of the social workers, Bessie King Jackson, came through without blinking an eye. Up until I decided to do this post, I never really knew much of Mrs Jackson’s history. All mom has ever related, largely because I’m sure it is all mom ever knew, is that Bessie was Black, a social worked, and from West Virginia. To help out my mom, Bessie Jackson wrote out a cornbread stuffing recipe on a 3X5 index card and gave it to a 26 year old Jewish woman from Queens and Silverman family Thanksgiving dinners have fortunately never been the same!

We still have that faded, slightly tattered and stained note card in a plastic sleeve stuck to the fridge at my mom’s house with a magnet. It travelled with her from Columbus to Tampa. From an apartment to now five different houses over her life in Tampa and one in Denver when my dad took sabbatical and went home for a year. Copies of the recipe, typed out, then emailed, and now saved as word, pages, and pdf documents, have travelled to Scotland with me when I was in grad school, then Philadelphia, Little Rock, NY, and Carlisle. My brother has it too, but he’s basically never left Florida, so his copy doesn’t travel far.

When I lived in Scotland, I used the recipe when my flat mates asked me if I’d roast them a turkey one year for Christmas as goose was too expensive. So off I went to the Saint Andrews Safeway and had a chat with the butcher who had to special order me a fresh turkey as it would have to be brought in from Edinburgh or Glasgow. We got to chatting and he asked how I was going to do it, trying to steer me to something more traditional like a roast so he wouldn’t have to do the paperwork for the special order. I explained what I was going to do with it, what I was going to serve with it, and then his eyes lit up. His wife was assembling a cook book of recipes that people had collected in their families over the years and the minute I finished telling the cornbread stuffing story he said: “I’ll get you that turkey, how many pounds do you want it, if you’ll give me the cornbread stuffing recipe and the story for my wife’s cookbook.” I made that deal! The butcher was thrilled, his wife was thrilled, and my flat mates and their guests were thrilled.

When I was deployed in Iraq, one of the last things I did before redeploying at the end of my tour was help the 2nd Brigade Combat Team/1st Armored Division plan a Thanksgiving dinner that would invite and include a variety of local Iraqis we’d been dealing with. I made sure the officer overseeing the kitchen prep got a copy of Beasie Jackson’s cornbread stuffing recipe. Since I redeployed home the week before Thanksgiving – I’d promised my mom when I left for pre-deployment training in August 2007 I’d be home for Thanksgiving 2008 – I’m not sure if they were able to make it scale for an entire BCT plus invited guests as I was back home eating my mom’s cornbread stuffing.

I’ve made Bessie Jackson’s cornbread stuffing in multiple countries. Every year at USAWC, I’d invite my international students, any others – American officers or internationals – that didn’t have invites or plans from their sponsors/advisors, and anyone else in the resident course who was stuck in town with nowhere to go to my house for Thanksgiving. Mom would fly up for the holiday – I made her walk the entirety of Pickett’s charge one year when we went to Gettysburg the day after Thanksgiving, she was prepared to surrender to the Union before we even got to the halfway mark! – and of course make Bessie Jackson’s cornbread stuffing. Lieutenant colonels to major generals from Nepal, Kenya, Algeria, Turkey, Kuwait, and all over the US have had it.

I have no idea how old Bessie Jackson was when she passed the recipe on to my mom. Since I had no idea if she’s still alive, I decided I’d put my keyword-fu to the test and I found her obituary, which I’ll copy and paste below. I have no idea if she had kids or anyone in their families used her cornbread stuffing recipe. But I do know there would be no Thanksgiving in a Silverman home without it. Whether we’re all in the same place or we’re in different states or countries, my mom, my brother and his family, and I all make this every Thanksgiving. My nephews know how to make it, so when we all go, there will still be Silverman’s making and eating Bessie Jackson’s cornbread stuffing on Thanksgiving.

And here’s the woman who without knowing it has made 50 plus years of Thanksgiving dinners special for my family. I’ll help mom try to track down any of her kids or grandkids and let them know. She had an amazing life and did a lot of good in addition to helping my mom make a successful Thanksgiving dinner.

Bessie King Jackson, child welfare advocate for more than 47 years, departed this life Sunday, February 6, 2005, after a brief hospitalization. Born July 11, 1930 in Hot Coal, WV to Simon Peter and Mary Bell Pannell King, she was the youngest of nine children. Received a BA from West Virginia State College and a Masters in Social Work from The Ohio State University. Her compassion for bringing about change was evident in every aspect of her life. Founder and director of the Bethune Center for Teenage Families, president of the Evening Star Missionary Society at Hosack Street Baptist Church, a past president and Executive Committee member of Ohio’s AARP, member of the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging Advisory Council, a committed member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority for more than 50 years, appointed by Governor Taft to the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Task Force, a former Court Appointed Special Advocate for the Court of Domestic Relations, Juvenile Division, and in 2004 was inducted into Ohio’s Senior Citizen Hall of Fame. Preceded in death by husband, Garland. Survived by daughters, Garlena Jackson, Jerri (Lawrence) Jackson-Fowlkes, and Patty Jackson; grandchildren, Leighton, Candice, Cedric, Jhamerra, John, Kayelin, Vivica, Jasmine, and one great-granddaughter, Laniyah; sister-in-law, Juanita King; cousins, Richard and Sara Johnson; a host of other relatives and friends. Service of Memory 9:30 a.m. Saturday, February 12, 2005 at Hosack Street Baptist Church, 1160 Watkins Road. Pastor Daryl Hairston, officiating. Mrs. Jackson will lie in state Friday 12 – 4 p.m. at DIEHL-WHITTAKER FUNERAL & CREMATION SERVICE, 720 E. Long Street and after 6 p.m. at the church, where the family will receive friends from 7-9 p.m. Interment Glen Rest Memorial Estate. In lieu of flowers, friends may contribute to the Bessie King Jackson Memorial Fund, c/o Huntington National Bank, 17 South High Street, Columbus, Ohio 43215.
Published by The Columbus Dispatch on Feb. 10, 2005.

A happy and healthy Thanksgiving to all of you! And if any of our readers in the Columbus, OH area know any of Mrs Jackson’s children or grandchildren, feel free to share this with them. And let them know that every year at Thanksgiving we honor their mother’s/grandmother’s memory and give thanks that she helped my mother out with her generosity.

Open thread!

And the recipe is in the comments.

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