To me, Thanksgiving is synonymous with Bell's Seasoning.
Since I could barely see over the counter, there were three especially noteworthy Thanksgiving traditions that never wavered: my mom would make her family's stuffing, it was would contain Bell's seasoning and we'd have canned cranberry sauce. While sometimes the potatoes had whole milk and butter and other times skim milk and margarine — and while sometimes the turkey was frozen or other times fresh — there were no variants when it came to the stuffing and the cranberry sauce. The trademark Bell's seasoning box would stand tall every Thanksgiving ... and then I'd never see it again until the next Thanksgiving.
About a decade ago, when I took over Thanksgiving cooking festivities, my mom's stuffing (and the requisite Bell's seasoning) was the only thing that I didn't "update" in some pretentious manner. There's a simplicity inherent in the stuffing, which we don't actually stuff in the turkey but still don't call dressing, for whatever reason: the crisped edges, the soft bits, the deeply flavorful and immensely nostalgic look and taste. There is a wild comfort knowing that that dish will be on the table, year after year, tasting and looking the exact same as it did in the 90s. The aroma is an immediate panacea, a soft place to land, a hard-to-put-in-words comfort.
The box, the turkey drawing, the font and logo ... it's all seared into my memory from 33 years of celebratory Thanksgiving holidays replete with family, food and love. Interestingly enough, I never even conceived of using it on the turkey — we've only ever incorporated it into the stuffing.
According to their official website, Bell's seasoning was William G. Bell's spice, herb and seasoning blend that he perfected and began selling way back in 1867 in the Boston area and throughout New England. The recipe has been the exact same the entire time, consisting of no salt and a mixture of rosemary, oregano, sage, ginger, marjoram, thyme and pepper. (Unless I'm mistaken, the box, logo, instructions and ingredients listed on the side haven't changed in the slightest, either.) The company now also produces lines of stuffing mixes, turkey brines and even meatloaf mix, but their bread-and-butter is unquestionably their iconic seasoning.
My nana's stuffing recipe is immensely simple and my mom hasn't strayed from it in my entire lifetime, aside from one tweak. While nana called for margarine or lard, my mother did move to unsalted butter. One ingredient has has maintained steadfastly, though, is frozen, chopped onions. My dad would trek to the store every year to find her a few bags of frozen, chopped onions, some generic white bread and eggs and milk. My mom would warm a pan, throw in the butter and then throw in the chunk of frozen onions, completely not defrosted. She would break it up with a knife before the onions would relax and soften, taking on no color but becoming translucent and then it was time for the pièce de résistance: the Bell's seasoning! She would sprinkle on a few teaspoons and the kitchen (and house overall) immediately smelled of Thanksgiving, of nostalgia, of memories, of years gone by, of family members. I love that smell so much and I think the fact that I only ever recall smelling it once a year has heightened the whole experience.
Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter, The Bite.
Bell's seasonings adds such a warming depth of flavor (and color) to the onions, permeating the final dish perfectly. After adding in the Bell's seasoning, my mom would toss the cooled mixture with eggs, milk and a heaping pile of white bread that she'd tear into bite-size pieces, often with my brother's help. From there, she'd pack it into multiple glass casserole dishes and refrigerate it until it was ready to be browned, crisped and cooked through. When I was in culinary school, I made some absurd appetizer, a bisque of some sort, super elevated desserts, homemade cranberry sauce — but there was no better bite bite on that table than my mom's stuffing.
It was also my dad's favorite. My dad passed just before Thanksgiving last year, his funeral services were on Thanksgiving Eve and then my mom and I prepped and cooked like androids (for some odd reason, we still moved forward with Thanksgiving preparations). This year, though, I'm so proud and so happy to make this stuffing, along with some sliced, canned cranberry sauce, which were two of his favorite Holiday foods. My dad loved Thanksgiving and all of our traditional dishes; I know he'd be so happy to see those precise dishes on the table, complete with all of us sitting around it.
1/2 teaspoon margarine
2 tablespoons crisco
1/3 bag frozen onions
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoon bell seasoning
1 loaf white bread, torn into bite-size pieces
1/4 cup milk
- Preheat oven to 375. In a large pan, melt butter margarine and Crisco together. Add frozen onions and cook until soft.
- Shut off heat and then add salt, pepper and Bell's Seasoning.
- Put bread in bowl along with onion mixture and add egg and milk to moisten. Stir well.
- Transfer to a buttered casserole dish.
- Bake for a half hour or until well browned.
-My nana and my mom usually duplicated or tripled this recipe each Thanksgiving.
-My mom now uses unsalted butter, but feel free to use the listed margarine and Crisco if you'd like, or salted butter, or whatever you have on hand.
-Of course, you can use a whole, large onion that is peeled and chopped.
-I'd probably up the salt.
-My mom always builds the stuffing in layers, alternating and mixing in between additions of milk, egg, more bread and more onion-Bell's mixture, before transferring it all to a casserole dish and baking it off.
-A newer update is cooking this in a sheet pan or cookie sheet, which will increase the surface area and allow for more crispy, browned bits.
-Over the past few years, I've been making a secondary stuffing with celery, leeks, walnuts, apple cider, a ton of sage, white wine and ciabatta or challah. It's superb, but still doesn't come close to my mom's.