When I stand in my new kitchen on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving Day, I shall not stand alone. My son and my sister will be there, and so will my mom and her mother in spirit.
I am not a culinary traditionalist for the most part. I seldom use recipes or make the same thing twice. But I make my family’s potato-sausage turkey stuffing exactly the same way every year. There never was a recipe per se for this wonderful dish.
My grandmother, Vincenza “Nanna” Mazzola moved with my grandfather, Michael “Papa” Mazzola to Willimantic, Conn., in the early 1900s where they eventually opened an Italian market under the apartment where they raised their family.
Nanna grew up in Sicily. She’d never seen a turkey before in her life but cooking one was part of being American. Legend has it that she started talking to a French woman who rented an apartment in the building who suggested stuffing the bird with meat and potatoes. So Nanna got some of Papa’s famous Italian sausage, cooked it up and added in mashed potatoes. She taught my mom, Rose, and her sisters how to make it. I learned it from her while sitting in the kitchen of the house I grew up in.
The formula is now part of the genetic code. First, we get some potatoes, a mix of Idaho bakers, red skinned boilers and Yukon Golds. We cover the dining room table with paper and start peeling. Normally, I would leave the skins on when making mashers but in this case it would just be wrong.
We cut them into big chunks and cover them with cold water in the large saucepan that Nanna once used. The potatoes are boiled until barely tender but not too mushy. They’ll cook more in the turkey.
While the spuds cook, I get out my immense, black, cast iron frying pan that I have no use for the rest of the year. We crumble chunks of good sweet and hot Italian sausage into the pan, along with some ground pork.
The meat gets fried just until the pink is barely gone, but not until it is completely cooked, and extra fat gets drained off, but not all of it because fat is flavor. We save some of the potato water to make turkey soup.
The spud chunks go back into the big pan over low heat with a quarter-pound of butter—make that at least a half pound of butter. Then we start stirring—but not mashing, while adding black pepper, a little salt and poultry seasoning. If we want to get wild, we’ll add onion and garlic. The magic moment occurs when the sausage is added to the mashers. We taste it, and then taste it again and again, to assure its authenticity. We always make extra because we’ll eat a bunch getting the seasoning right, and also because this stuff is absolutely, positively addictive.
All that’s left is to fill the bird early the next morning, forcing the stuffing into the nooks and crannies of the deceased beast, a replacement for its heart and soul. Some stuffing always gets baked separately in a pie pan, but technically, that’s “dressing.” We all want some of the mix that emerges glistening from the slow-roasted gobbler fat with flavor.
In the days that follow we enjoy the leftovers. I sometimes fry up stuffing cakes in the morning with eggs, an impromptu Mazzola Benedict. In repeating this sacred ritual year after year, I honor my ancestors and pass along the history to the next generation. For this and more I am deeply grateful.