Fowl play: stuffing the bird

Every Thanksgiving, millions of households around the country grapple with the same old stuffing dilemmas - to make the traditional cornbread and sage recipe or branch out into more daring dishes like oyster, wild rice or chestnut dressings, and whether to stuff the bird or do a casserole or stovetop version.

First, I'm going to help you navigate your way through the stuffing part of the holiday dinner with the least angst and most enjoyment. Second, I'll try to keep your family and guests free from stomach woes. And third, I'll show you how to repair glitches and disasters so you don't get the stuffing knocked out of you.

The term stuffing originated from the Latin farcire meaning "to stuff." In the late 1800s "stuffing" was considered gauche vernacular to the Victorian upper crust, so they swapped it for the more gentile "dressing." Stuffing was enjoyed in the days of the Roman Empire as ancient cookbooks chronicled chicken, rabbit, pork and dormouse being used as cavities.

Food historians can't confirm whether stuffing was served at the inaugural Thanksgiving dinner at Plymouth Rock, but the concept was brought to America where folks on the Eastern Seaboard first concocted an oyster stuffing which is still a Thanksgiving tradition in those parts.

Today, Southerners choose pecan, rice or cornbread stuffing; Italians like sausage; Germans use dried fruit or potatoes; the French enjoy sweet chestnuts chopped into their turkey or goose dressings; the Portuguese make a potato and giblet stuffing; and a Cajun creation known as the Turducken - a turkey stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with andouille sausage stuffing - has gained popularity throughout the U.S.

Some cooks make casseroles or stovetop versions. Others are die-hard bird stuffers who fill the cavity au naturel or line it with a cheese cloth or a stuffing bag - a neat and easy way of removing the stuffing with one yank. Remember, stuffing increases the cooking time of the bird. Unstuffed, cook for 20 minutes per pound. Stuffed, add an extra 10 minutes per pound.

For a dressing that won't threaten to harm your Thanksgiving crowd, stuff just before you are ready to roast as pre-stuffing could breed salmonella.

It is also worth investing in a poultry thermometer to test for bird and stuffing doneness. Cook the stuffing until the center registers 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the stuffing immediately after you take the bird out of the oven, once again to prevent kooties as the turkey cools. Also, reheat the stuffing on the stove to the same temperature.

It is imperative to thoroughly cook eggs, seafood and meat, especially oysters and sausages if they are cavity-bound, to prevent contaminants from forming.

Even if you decide not to stuff, please remove the giblet bag from the cavity before roasting - the most common Thanksgiving faux pas. Someone even nuked the bird containing the bag and had to scrape the gizzard, liver and other equally unappetizing parts, along with melted plastic fragments scattered on the microwave interior. If this happens to you, clean out the cavity and zip your lips.

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