Miss Hughlene’s Chicken and Dressin’
By Nikki Pelezo / Dirt Roads
Miss Hughlene is my neighbor and she is 97 years old and still cooks for herself. In her lifetime she has probably prepared and taken thousands of casseroles to her church, the Union Ridge United Methodist in the Ewell community of Upshur County. I wanted her recipe for Chicken and Dressing, but being of a certain generation she doesn’t cook from a recipe. She said I could come over and take notes when she “fixed” her next batch. This is how it went and for clarity, I interjected where needed.
“Early in the morning boil up some chicken,” says Miss Hughlene. “I use two leg quarters covered with water (Miss Hughlene is very frugal). Simmer ’til done. Skin and bone the chicken and save the broth. Put the broth in the ice box ’til well chilled to let the yellow stuff come up to the top, skim it off. You don’t need the yellow stuff.” (It finally dawned on me that the yellow stuff is chicken fat)
“After you get the chicken cooking, mix up your cornbread. Here’s what I do. I go and buy those packages of cornbread mix. They’re about the size of a 5 X 7 photo. Sometimes I get the Mexican kind to give it some kick, but you do what you want. Fix two packages of the cornbread mix and put it in your big cast iron skillet. Once baked, cool down the cornbread.”
“Get you a big plastic bowl, about the size that you eat popcorn out of and dump the cooled cornbread in it. Mush it up real good, it should look like pea gravel. (Pea Gravel? What the heck is pea gravel and what does it look like?) Put in a big teacup of broth, if you run slight, use canned. Grab your potato smasher and mush it up real good. Add about a hand full of really tiny chopped celery (tiny as in finely chopped, not tiny celery), two handfuls of really tiny chopped green onions (ditto). If you want you can use regular onions, that‘s ok. Two eggs, a hand full or two of plain bread crumbs. Salt sparingly.” Miss Hughlene stands back from the counter, takes a deep breath and wipes her hands on her crocheted apron.
“Stir this all up and be sure to remember to add the chicken. One time I forgot to add the chicken, but no one noticed.” (Probably because Miss Hughlene uses very little chicken.)
“Anyways, what was I saying? Oh yeah, after you stir this all up it should be a little soupy. Give or take a little bread crumbs or broth, to get it right.”
“Now add the secret ingredients: One can of that “no name brand” cream of chicken soup and one stick of melted oleo. Now it should be like cake batter on the runny side, but not too runny. Give it a little taste to see if it needs more salt. Add pepper to suit yourself. (Should I say something about raw eggs? She’s looking at me with piercing eyes, so I better not.)
“Put the stuff in a well buttered two quart Pyrex casserole dish, like the one I take for church suppers. Put the stuff in the oven at around 350 degrees. I’m not sure how long, in all, this should cook. Maybe an hour, who knows? Just cook it ’til you think she’s done. Make the chicken and dressin’ the day before; keep it in the ice box to get the most out of the flavors.”
“Presentation is what it’s all about. Stick a sprig of parsley right in the middle. If you can’t find parsley any herb will do. If you can’t find any herbs, stick in a piece of tree.”
I went straight home and made a batch of Miss Hughlene’s Chicken and Dressin’ and it was a failure. I wasn’t able to put in 97 years of love, experience or her fantastic sense of humor.