So Stuff it, Already!

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It's November. I'm wheeling toward the "Baking Needs/Stuffing Mixes/ Salad Dressings" aisle of the nearest super-duper supermarket, feeling like there's a huge target on my back. If anyone fits the demographic of Thanksgiving's chief cook and bottlewasher, it's me: I'm a boomer (b. 1946-64), married (traditional family household), and have children (ages 8, 5, and 1 year).

But this is the first year I'm really in the crosshairs. Up until now, my family has (tried to) live out the fantasy of the '50s-everyone gathers at Grandmother's cozy cottage for a huge, traditional holiday meal prepared by-Grandmother. This year, my mother called a strike: Too many family members, not enough cottage.

As the oldest daughter, I've been designated Turkey Day cook. Not much hope is held out by the designated T-day visitors as far as my culinary skills/ambition/expectations go. But they know it'll be worth the trip, if only for the 10-years-from-now, "remember the time when" stories.

So I've got the turkey, thawing in the cart. I've got the vegetables-potatoes, celery, green beans (which the kids won't eat), broccoli (which my father won't eat), and carrots (which some family members will eat only if they're cooked, and most will eat only if they're not cooked). I only came down this aisle to get flour for the gravy (it's the one thing my mother will make this year, because I never learned how, and everyone else's Thanksgiving will be ruined without gravy.).

I narrowly miss a huge end-aisle display of stuffing mixes. That's what I forgot! My mother used to make her mother's stuffing recipe. She'd dry the bread, crumble it up, add some...ingredients. Oh, hell. Cranberries? Water chestnuts? Halfway down the aisle, I'm confronted with another phalanx of stuffing mixes in various colors, sizes, and containers. Each beckons: "Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!"

On the top shelf, there's Kraft's ubiquitous Stove Top Stuffing. I can't remember the last ad I've seen for this-or any other-brand. They seem to target my kids, via Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, building brand recognition in the boomlet generation and then turning them on their parents. At least, I think that's the plan. Out of the clear blue sky, my 5-year-old daughter began making up songs about Stove Top Stuffing-and that was in August. (Too bad my kids hate stuffing. Despite all the ads, they're deeply suspicious of anything moist and steamy on their plates, and avoid the "wet bread with things in it" like the plague).

Still, I am at a loss as to which stuffing stuffs best. I've already tried the '90s solution to any information deficit: an Internet search. Infoseek helpfully found 21,292,272 pages containing the words "stuffing mixes and dressing." Tons of recipes ("Festive Stuffing Balls!"), a lot of griping ("Mini-wars are waged among families about what will stuff the cavity of the holiday bird"), and no solutions (another '90s problem).

So here I am, faced with shelf upon shelf stocked with mixes dedicated to chicken, pork, and turkey, and boxes full of cornbread and "savory herbs." There's even a microwave brand. I recoil at the thought. One of Mother's golden rules: "Anything worth doing is worth doing well." Okay, I'll go for the regular mix, rather than the instant. They can't say I didn't put some effort into it. Besides, I need the microwave to cook the vegetables.

I have to narrow the parameters here. Who's going to eat it? All the grown-ups, and no child except the baby. The fallback: What's on sale? Nothing. This is Thanksgiving, dear. Supermarket managers know desperate cooks like me have to buy this stuff. On Black Friday, they'll be giving it away. My next deciding factor: Do I have a coupon? The "20th Annual Survey of Promotional Practices," by Cox Direct of St. Petersburg, Florida, notes that 85 percent of consumers use coupons to buy grocery and health-and-beauty-care products, and 43 percent of the respondents said they often purchase a brand name if they have a coupon. That's me, down to the ground.

But now, I don't have a coupon. Kraft and Campbell's, maker of the Pepperidge Farm brand, probably have been peppering the Sunday newspapers with promotions since early October. But unlike 36.9 percent of the female homemakers who buy stuffing at least once a year (according to Mediamark Research), I never even think of it, even when prompted by a coupon (see "wet bread with things in it," above). This year, I didn't expect to buy any, so my scissors went for General Mills, Huggies, and whatever brand of laundry detergent gives 50 cents off.

Suddenly my two oldest children discover the party fixin's-those tantalizing canisters of multicolored sugar sprinkles, etc.-at the far, far end of the aisle. The 5-year-old is using two containers as castanets while the 8-year-old is showing off his version of an Irish jig crossed with the Mexican Hat Dance. They've stopped traffic, and annoyed adults are searching for the mother responsible. Time is of the essence.

Perhaps a discriminating approach will aid the selection process. A quick glance at the various ingredients in each package proves less than enlightening. Everything contains wheat flour, herbs, and spices. Big deal.

When all else fails, experience steps in. I grab a bag of Pepperidge Farm Herbs/Seasoning mix off the second-from-the-bottom shelf. It's what Aunt Lois (who didn't cook) served the one Thanksgiving she got an attack of the guilts and had the family over. Having inherited her cooking skills, this is the brand I lived on for a whole summer during college, with only a hot plate to cook on. With a little celery added, it almost went with canned tuna.

As I advance up the aisle, growling at my spawn, I know two things: When dinner's over, my guests and immediate family won't hesitate to tell me which special dish-homemade cranberry jelly, cornbread, sweet potatoes, alfalfa sprouts, french fries, or Festive Stuffing Balls!-I failed to include that would have made their holiday meal perfect. And those advertisers targeting children probably aren't missing the mark, after all. Some day, my kids will be cooking for themselves. And with the skills I'm passing along, they'll be back in this aisle, staring up at all these boxes...

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