When Paul Prudhomme, chef-owner of New Orleans’ K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, died last month, it was a loss not only for the restaurant industry, but for me personally. The culinary legend has had a seat at my family’s Thanksgiving table for at least two decades. Despite planting our roots well north of the Mason-Dixon line, our traditions are decidedly Southern. Collard greens are as intrinsic as turkey to the main meal, and with all due respect to pumpkins, sweet-potato pie is the traditional dessert.
One of the few times we were adventurous enough to toy with our time-honored menu, we still fell back on Southern culture, opting for a Cajun-inspired Thanksgiving dinner with gumbo—the recipe from Prudhomme’s Seasoned America cookbook—instead of turkey as the centerpiece of the meal.
But one thing that never can be absent from the feast is cornbread dressing—another Prudhomme preparation. It’s important to note that he called it “dressing,” Southern vernacular for stuffing and a very important distinction. It’s the term my mother, my grandmothers and my grandmothers’ mothers used for the bread casserole some people stuff inside the bird, but a good portion of America, including Prudhomme’s part of the country, rarely do.
Like most of Prudhomme’s recipes, the instructions begin with tossing together a complicated mix of dried herbs and spices and layering them into the dish at various points in the preparation. His website notes that, when customers in his restaurant used to ask about the secret of his flavorings, he would have the cooks make up little batches to give away. Eventually Prudhomme made things easier on his staff—and us home cooks—by developing premixed seasonings that he sold in stores and online.
Finely chopping the vegetables, including onions, green peppers and celery, as well as the ingredient that sends Prudhomme’s dressing into another universe—chicken giblets, boiled until tender—takes my mother, the designated dressing-maker in our family, a good hour. That’s because the side dish has become so popular, that in addition to the gigantic pan she makes to serve our extended family of eight, she also must make several smaller full pans for my family and my sister’s family to take home. A few heaping spoonfuls on the leftovers plate just isn’t enough.
Over the years, we’ve shared the cornbread dressing dish and recipe with family and friends who then made it part of their own Thanksgiving traditions. And that, in one small way, demonstrates the impact Chef Prudhomme has had on home cooks, diners and the restaurant industry at large. His personality, hospitality and unwaivering passion for making Louisiana cuisine mainstream and accessible to Yankees like me paved the way for other chefs to extend their own brand of home cooking out into the world. And a whole generation of restaurateurs and home cooks are culinary successes because of it.