Should you say "stuffing" or "dressing"?
This is a question that semanticists ponder all year long. Semanticists, by the way, are people who do crosswords puzzles without cheating.
But during the holidays, the question of whether it is "stuffing" or "dressing" moves from the lofty world of semantics into the real world of second helpings.
You are sitting at the table wanting seconds, and you mumble "May I have some more of that . . . stuff . . . er, dress . . . Would you please pass the green bowl?"
In an effort to prevent such embarrassing dinner table scenes, I embarked on an exhaustive effort researching the difference between stuffing and dressing. I read a few books, I called a few friends and I found an expert. I never had to get out of my chair.
The book part left me confused. A new book on the holiday bird, "The Turkey Cookbook" (Harper Perennial, $10.95), by New York caterer Rick Rodgers, said the terms were interchangeable.
The only difference, the book said, is which side of the Mason-Dixon line you hail from. Southerners say "dressing," Yankees say "stuffing."
The Larousse Gastronomique (Crown, $50), a reference work that weighs about as much as a Tom Turkey, had another answer.
It said "dressing" is a way of preparing fish, poultry or game birds for cooking.
As for stuffing, it is a "forcemeat." And a forcemeat was a mixture of raw and cooked, chopped ingredients stuffed in eggs, fish, poultry and meat, that could, according to Larousse, also be called a "farce."
It may be correct in the culinary salons, but back in Kansas City, if I tried calling my mom's stuffing a "farce" I'd get a mal de mer. That is French for hit "upside the headbone."
After hitting the books for about 10 minutes, I concluded that phase of my research. I moved on to the next part, calling people around the country, and asking them, "What is in your turkey?"
This was not a question you can easily ask a stranger. So I called my relatives.
Here is what I found: Down South in Memphis, Aunt Nora uses bread and celery and calls it dressing. So did Aunt Mary Alice in the heartland of Chicago. Up East in Burlington, Vt., Aunt Jeanne uses corn bread and calls it stuffing. And, out West, adopted-Aunt Janie in San Diego uses corn bread and apples and calls it stuffing.
Almost all of my respondents flip-flopped on whether they called it stuffing or dressing. I went with their first response.
Still, my phone survey was indecisive. All it proved was the stuffing-dressing issue is about the only issue my family does not have strong opinions on.
Finally I called an expert, Barbara Kuke, curator of the Johnson & Wales University Culinary Archives in Providence, R.I.
She quickly looked up the terms in "America's Table," a 1950 work by Joseph D. Vehling who, she said, was both a trained chef and a scholar of the classics. She read Vehling's definitions to me over the phone.
According to Vehling, the two terms were interchangeable. He felt, however, that dressing is the "better word."
And in his definition of dressing, Vehling listed both the purpose of a dressing and its seven styles. The purpose, he wrote, was to avoid drying the meat during roasting and to "absorb and save its savory juices. . . ."
The seven styles, or bases of a dressing, he named as bread, sausage, starch, cereal (rice), nut and fruit, forcemeat and miscellaneous (truffles, mushroom, giblets, livers).
So there you have it: The fellow who took the trouble to list the seven ways of making the stuff you put inside a turkey said the preferred name for the concoction is "dressing." But he also said "stuffing" is OK, too.
After all my research, here is what I have to say:
You can call it stuffing, or you can call it dressing. But whatever name you call it, your in-laws will call it by the other one.