- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Willard Room’s chef de cuisine, Denis Soriano, may be French-born and French-trained, but when it comes to Thanksgiving stuffing, he takes his cue from an unlikely place — the San Diego kitchen of his mother-in-law, who uses Wonder bread, whipping cream and chicken livers.

More than any other Thanksgiving dish, stuffing speaks of history, of culture, of family and of memories. And like Mr. Soriano, Washington restaurant chefs are harking back to family roots and local traditions this Thanksgiving Day as they prepare their make-or-break accompaniment to the traditional turkey — no matter whether their stuffing features the humblest gizzard or the most urbane oyster.

“The one thing I love of the whole meal,” Mr. Soriano says of Thanksgiving dinner at his mother-in-law’s, “is the stuffing, and I said, ‘This is what I am going to do for the Willard every year.’”

Mr. Soriano first tasted Martha Contreras’ dish — the concoction he dubbed “Martha’s stuffing” — about 10 years ago. He ate the expected two slices of turkey at that Thanksgiving meal in California, but that was mere prelude.

“All day, I was eating the stuffing,” he says. “At the end of the day, there was no stuffing left.”

Mr. Soriano is now serving up his third Thanksgiving at the Willard Room, the Willard InterContinental Hotel’s signature restaurant. That means 22 turkey legs; five pounds of chicken livers; and enough butter, whipping cream and turkey gizzards to fill 12 to 15 pans of stuffing for an anticipated 200 to 300 guests.

He skips the Wonder bread in favor of sourdough in his savory, meat-packed stuffing. But like his mother-in law, Mr. Soriano cooks the stuffing outside the bird and likes it “a little wet.”

Cooked in a casserole dish for 30 minutes, it is a hearty meal in itself, with meat, walnuts and a light crunch of celery and flavored with the livers and gizzards — and because this is the Willard, we’ll call it chicken pate.

• • •

Stuffing goes back at least as far in recorded history as does the turkey it ennobles on Thanksgiving. Many sources cite the turkey as native to the Americas, probably domesticated between 200 B.C. and A.D. 700.

One of the world’s oldest cookbooks, the Latin “De Re Coquinaria,” from the third or fourth century A.D., “has recipes for stuffed chicken, hare, pig, and even stuffed dormouse,” using everything from vegetables and nuts to chopped liver and brains, according to the Web site www.foodreference.com.

What’s the difference between stuffing and dressing? The two are almost interchangeable terms, according to home economist Dorothy Jones of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, who has stuffed about 50 turkeys over time and who is in her 20th year staffing the popular help line at 800/BUTTERBALL.

“It’s a regional thing. People from the South talk about the dressing. It used to be that dressing was made outside the turkey in a casserole dish,” she says.

• • •

Chefs, however, would rather talk turkey — or pork or squab or ham hocks — when discussing their stuffing. At Georgetown’s 1789 Restaurant, the stuffing served on Thanksgiving is reminiscent of the pork stuffing made by executive chef Ris Lacoste’s mother, a treat that comes out of the family’s French-Canadian ancestry.

Ms. Lacoste remembers a “taste that is so delicious to me that I love still” as she recalls her mother’s stuffing cooking on the stove in a tiny kitchen that would feed more than a dozen people on Thanksgiving Day at her childhood home in New Bedford, Mass.

Although her mother, Yvonne Lacoste, “would make bread stuffing separately because she liked it,” she stuffs the turkey with ground pork cooked about an hour on the stove. Mrs. Lacoste, now 80, adds bread crumbs or cracker crumbs “to absorb the juices,” or “bind” the stuffing, for what is basically a meat casserole.

“I don’t do that,” her daughter says, noting that her recipe is for a bread-based dish with various renditions of pork in it. Moreover, Ms. Lacoste, the chef, doesn’t stuff her bird but instead prepares the stuffing on the side. She will be preparing her Thanksgiving Day stuffing for the 10th straight year for an expected 600 to 650 guests.

She takes her mother’s pork theme and runs with it, adding pork sausage, diced Smithfield ham and smoked pork hocks for the “broth,” then ingredients such as maple syrup to bring out the saltiness of the pork, and she flavors the mixture with herbs such as fresh thyme and sage. She figures she makes one part of the wet mixture, or the seasoned broth, to two parts stale bread cubes.

“I separately roast off pork sausage meat and put that into the broth and make sure all those flavors meld.” She then adds bread crumbs to soak up the juices. “We use gallons and gallons of dried bread cubes,” she says.

For the big day, she will oversee the preparation of 50 gallons of stuffing at the relaxed, country-inn-style 1789. Bread loaves are baked and dried on sheet pans in advance, starting before Thanksgiving, using a bulkier white bread than what the restaurant usually bakes.

It’s a far cry from Ms. Lacoste’s early experience with food service. When she was 16, she helped out on a turkey farm the day before Thanksgiving by stuffing turkeys for the customers, she says — and stuffed each bird without removing the neck-heart-giblet sac tucked inside. Watching her mother stuff her turkey the following day, she realized her error and called to apologize for ruining “all those turkeys.” She “couldn’t sleep for nights,” she says.

• • •

For a taste basted with Southern tradition, one might go to Georgia Brown’s in downtown Washington, where executive chef Neal Langermann’s sweet cornbread stuffing complements a Southern-fried-turkey Thanksgiving meal, a taste for which even the wait staff is impatient.

About five or six years ago, Mr. Langermann and Southern cookbook author John Martin Taylor went to Charleston, S.C., to taste and research “low country” fare, talking to locals, eating meals at various places, hoping to bring the flavor of the low country back to Washington. Their findings lend themselves particularly well to Thanksgiving.

Although Mr. Langermann, a San Franciscan, grew up far from the area stretching from Savannah, Ga., to Charleston, he says, “To understand cuisine, it is my belief you have to understand the tradition it came from.”

The region’s cuisine “was born out of slavery days,” Mr. Langermann says. Stuffing was made with leftover breads and anything the slaves were “lucky enough” to get from the slave owner’s house. It was cuisine born out of poverty, and mealtime was “a time to come together and celebrate life, family,” Mr. Langermann says.

At Georgia Brown’s, he makes a basic stuffing of cornbread with sauteed celery, garlic and onions and a seasoning base, “rather than trying to make it the most interesting thing on the plate.”

He aims to recreate the flavor profile of the low-country food — people can add ingredients or sauces later.

These could include spices, oysters, bacon and the kitchen’s red-eye gravy of bacon, ham and sausage, which gets its kick from Coca-Cola and coffee, following a traditional recipe.

Georgia Brown’s cornbread stuffing is baked outside the turkey. Cornbread is the “perfect vehicle” for stuffing, Mr. Langermann says: Because the bread already has a corn and sugar content, it crumbles smoothly, unlike other breads. The restaurant will make about 25 trays of cornbread for about 450 Thanksgiving Day meals.

One thing Mr. Langermann did bring to Georgia Brown’s is his boyhood Thanksgiving memories of going to his Uncle Milton’s house in San Francisco and seeing all his cousins there.

“It was like going out to dinner and having people taking care of all your wants and needs,” he says.

He says that atmosphere describes a Thanksgiving meal at the restaurant, as well. The experience at Georgia Brown’s is meant to be “like being in someone’s home,” offering diners a “pie-on-the-windowsill feeling” of getting back to a time in people’s lives when things were less complicated.

The restaurant staff members, about half of whom have been with him at the restaurant since he started in 1996, behave like a close-knit family, too.

Mr. Langermann prepares a sit-down meal late Thanksgiving Day for the staff, and another one the next day for those who left early on the holiday.

But some can’t wait until then: A server saunters into the kitchen as the chef demonstrates his cooking to find out for her colleagues when they can start heaping the leftover stuffing and the fried turkey on their plates, while a manager later runs off with a huge turkey thigh in his fist.

• • •

Over at Equinox, on Connecticut Avenue a few blocks from the White House, an elegant interpretation of local stuffing is under way.

One might not think of squab as either a Northern or Southern version of American Thanksgiving. But conjure up the Mid-Atlantic area’s culinary heritage while contemplating the festive dish that chef Todd Gray makes to stuff squab in preparing a dish for the “discerning palate.”

Start with the lightly smoked pork sausage base for the stuffing.

“What could be more regional than sausage from one of the oldest sausage makers in the U.S.?” he asks, referring to S. Wallace Edwards & Sons from Surry, Va., near Jamestown, where, Virginia boosters say, a Thanksgiving meal took place that predated the 1621 Plymouth meal with the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians.

In business since 1926, the company cures and smokes its pork products at its smokehouses using “a technique adapted by the original Jamestown colonists (circa 1608) from the Indian method of curing venison in their wigwams by the smoke of cooking fires,” according to information from the Virginia tourism Web site, www.virginia.org.

Moreover, Mr. Gray uses chestnuts from Blue Ridge Mountain chestnut farms for earthiness, sweetness and color, and butternut squash from the Rappahannock River region in the state. The squabs are from Four Story Hill Farm in eastern Pennsylvania.

As for the what he calls the “explosion” of fresh sage for the stuffing? That’s from his back yard here in Washington. “It’s 16th Street sage,” he says, laughing.

“I use foods that are native to my upbringing,” says Mr. Gray, who owns Equinox with his wife, Ellen, and “does several turns on stuffing” for fall.

Equinox is closed on Thanksgiving but open tomorrow with variations on stuffed birds, such as squab, pheasant and capon. Last night after the restaurant close, the staff and friends celebrated Thanksgiving together, each party bringing a special dish.

Mr. Gray grew up in Fredericksburg, Va., “back when oysters were coming up the Rappahannock River and local farmers were bringing turkeys into the market, and chickens, game birds.” He says he developed his awareness and love of local foods and ingredients while visiting his grandmother in Lancaster, Pa., and watching the Amish bring local food to market, the children carrying the food from the trucks.

As Mr. Gray reminisces, he seasons the cavity of the squab and spoons in a stuffing bonded by sourdough baguettes, whipped eggs, heavy cream and Parmesan cheese, then reshapes the bird for a natural look, finally threading one leg through the other, which has been slit, to seal it for roasting.

The result is a dense, earthy layering of texture and flavor, lightened by the sweetness of the squash, quickened by the gamy flavor of the rosemary-and-thyme-roasted squab. Or one can try using duck sausage stuffing for a duck, or shred pheasant leg for a pheasant stuffing.

Variation on stuffing, it seems, is a chef’s prerogative — and an American tradition.

Where to dine

Are you ready for some memory-laden stuffing? Try out the dishes at any of the restaurants profiled here.

• Equinox: 818 Connecticut Ave. NW. Closed Thanksgiving Day but open for dinner tomorrow from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. 202/331-8118.

• Georgia Brown’s: 1 McPherson Square at 15th and K streets NW. Georgia Brown’s says it is sold out for this Thanksgiving but is happy to take reservations for Thanksgiving 2005. 202/393-4499.

• 1789 Restaurant: 1226 36th St. NW. 1789 is open for Thanksgiving dinner from noon to 9 p.m. 202/965-1789.

• Willard Room at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel: 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Thanksgiving dinner served from noon to 8 p.m. 202/637-7440.

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