I’ve heard some argue that when stuffing (also known as dressing, although that is a hotly debated topic) is done right it can be the highlight of a Thanksgiving meal. With so many delicious food options, this may be a somewhat controversial viewpoint. What can’t be denied though is that humans have thought that stuffing was a damn good idea long before the first Thanksgiving or the discovery of the New World.
The exact origin of stuffing can’t be exactly pinpointed. However, I would imagine that the practice has occurred ever since people have been ripping the entrails out of carcasses. Many seem to have forgotten that stuffing is supposed to be on the inside of an animal, not in a baking dish next to it.
The first written record of stuffing fares from the Roman Empire in a cookbook titled De Re Coquinaria. It contained recipes for a variety of stuffed animals; including hares, pigs and chickens. For the most part the stuffing consisted of a variety of vegetables, spices, nuts and herbs, as well as spelt and organ meat. It of course wasn’t called ‘stuffing’ at the time, in fact that word didn’t appear in print until about 1538. Prior to this, it was mostly referred to as farce which came from the Latin farcire which meant ‘to stuff.’ By the Victorian era, the word ‘stuffing’ became a little too crass for 19th century sensibilities and was thusly referred to as dressing instead, which we of course know is still used today interchangeably.
It can’t be known exactly when stuffing became popular in America, however, written evidence shows that it was a Thanksgiving staple by at least 1836. It’s more than likely that it has been utilised far earlier though, after all, there was already a long historical tradition of the practice. Also, you gotta stuff a bird with something. What we do know for sure is that different parts of the nation adapted the dish early on in order to incorporate local flavours. For example, in the Boston area oyster based stuffings are incredibly popular. One of the earliest printed recipes is from the 1832 Cook’s Own Book which instructed “Fill your chickens with young oysters cut small, truffles, parsley and spices, and roast them.” Comparatively, New England stuffing at the time tended to incorporate chestnuts, and often continues to today. In the South, cornbread based stuffing is the way to go, although they tend to refer to it as the aforementioned dressing.
There’s no evidence to show exactly when stuffing left the animal cavities and became a side dish onto itself. However, it could be argued that it at least became widespread during the early 1970s. This was due to the the release of Ruth Siems’ Stovetop Stuffing in 1972 by General Foods, which is now known as Kraft Foods. It was quick, convenient and tasty, and therefore was an instant hit. Today, over sixty millions boxes are sold every year at Thanksgiving time. As an Australian, I still don’t quite understand the idea of a roasting pan full of stuffing. As a historian, I think I’m obliged to examine the matter by making a huge batch for this years Friendsgiving I’m attending. All in the name of research, of course.