Tag Archives: stuffing

Southern-Irish Oyster Dressing


“One family ritual we had growing up for Thanksgiving was that rather than having cornbread-based dressings [for Thanksgiving], we always had oyster dressing… Oyster dressing would have been a standard addition to our Southern-Irish Thanksgiving dinner growing up.”

Minor Genre: 

Holiday Ritual; Traditional Foods


The informant explained in the interview, “My understanding is that [oyster dressing] has roots in my family’s Irish heritage rather than in Southern culture.” The informant grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in a deep Southern setting, but her family immigrated from Ireland in the 1800s and maintained a strong connection with their Irish roots.


Although the informant believed the oyster dressing was connected to Irish culture, my research indicates that it actually became deeply embedded in Southern cuisine. The recipe was brought to New England from Britain in the 18th century, where it then migrated down the East Coast and took root in the deep South.

I think the most interesting part of this interview from a folkloric perspective is the informant’s belief that their traditional oyster dressing dish originated from Ireland. Although my research indicates the recipe was brought to America from Britain, it is entirely possible that the recipe was brought to the informant’s family from Ireland. The part of the family from Ireland lived in the coastal town of Dungarvan, which is located in one of the counties in Ireland that accounts for the highest production of oysters. Therefore, the informant is not necessarily incorrect in her belief that the recipe originated from Ireland –– though it is also possible that her family adapted the recipe from their Southern environment.

An additional note on oyster dressing is that the informant was specific in saying dressing rather than stuffing. Stuffing and dressing are terms used for the same traditional Thanksgiving dish, but “dressing” is specific to the South, and is the term the informant used before moving to California, where her husband’s family used the term “stuffing.”

Tradition/Foodways – Thanksgiving Dressing

Thanksgiving Tradition/Foodway – American

“I have a grinder that we use once a year to make the Thanksgiving dressing. I helped my father make it when I was little.. so, um, he left it to me when he died. When I started making it my sons would help me and we use the same grinder, and now my grandson helps his father and I do it. So when I go to the happy hunting grounds, I will leave the grinder to him. The traditional part is, uh, that the boys come to the house and stay over the night before Thanksgiving. We get up very early in the morning, before the sun, and grind the ingredients together. And we always do it outside because it’s messy, and we attach the grinder to a table. We mix the boiled onions and stale bread together with the grinder. And another thing is that the bread has to be really stale.. I start that part two days before we grind. I put the bread out two days before and flip them every once in awhile to get them really stale. The day before Thanksgiving I peel and boil the onions. Then the boys come, we get up early, and grind the bread and onions with seasonings, eggs, and butter.. and then stuff the turkey. There is no recipe.. we just do it by taste. You know when it’s done because of the taste. This has been going on for six generations at least.. it started in Manchester, England, where my father’s ancestors are from. I don’t think there is any real reason behind which child it gets passed to, but it usually alternates genders every generation…with the exception of this one. It’s like ‘the gender switch.’ My dad was the forth child of ten, so there’s no real reason it was him.. I guess he just showed interest.. like I did over my brother. The grinder is still in the same box from when it was bought in the early 1900’s. I think this is just a way to pass down our heritage… a way for the adults to teach their kids about our ancestry.”

I agree with the informant’s analysis for the reason behind this tradition. It teaches children how to cook and uphold ancestral traditions that have been passed down for generations. It contributes to their perceptions of cultural identity, but also teaches them about the turkey tradition that comes with Thanksgiving. The only inconsistency I noticed with this tradition is that it supposedly began in England, yet it is in celebration of a decidedly American holiday: Thanksgiving. I mentioned this to the informant, and she seemed a little confused, as though she had never thought about it. She came off as a little defensive, as though I was questioning the validity of her story. She responded that the dressing recipe has been passed down from her ancestors in England, but that it was adapted to the American Thanksgiving tradition. I’m not sure how valid this is, as I’m not quite sure how much turkey they eat in England. I highly doubt they ate much turkey in England six generations ago, at least not enough to justify a custom such as this one. Nonetheless, this tradition is obviously extremely important to the informant, as is the story that goes along with it. It provides a method of connecting generations of family members, which after all, is the point of traditions such as this.