November is a time to give thanks for all of God’s blessings so what better time to share one of my greatest blessings — my Mom. Family and heritage are a huge part of who she is. She has spent numerous hours preserving past memories of our family and that includes a special family recipe that started with my great-grandmother, Malissa James Hankins.
“Mama” Hankins raised a houseful of children in the Pleasant Valley community south of Wooster during the 1920s, but she also took in anybody else that needed a place to stay. Her father-in-law, Riley Thompson Hankins, one of the first settlers in the area and a Confederate veteran, lived with her large family, even after his son, Mart, died in 1940.
The holidays brought all the family members together at Mama Hankins house where a large spread of food was brought out. Even neighbors and visitors would show up during the day to partake and visit.
One of the dishes Mama Hankins always made for those special occasions was her chicken and dressing. When her daughter, Viola Hankins Burnett, in turn, began to host family gatherings, she also made sure Mama Hankins’ homemade dressing was on hand.
Some of my earliest memories at Grandma Burnett’s house were during the holidays when all her children and grandchildren would come for Thanksgiving. Mama Hankins, now elderly and leaving the cooking to her daughters, came as well. Grandma’s sisters and brothers might also stop in.
Grandma Burnett made that chicken and dressing for every major holiday at her house and she also made it to take to every Pleasant Valley Baptist Church homecoming, every Hankins family reunion, every funeral meal, and any other occasion that called for it. It was anticipated and expected by all who came to eat.
In the 1990s, the ladies of Pleasant Valley Baptist Church put together a cookbook, Generations: Recipes I Learned on My Mother’s Knee. The introduction said it was a book compiled “by common people with one common interest—a dedication to keeping families well and happily fed.” It contained new recipes, but it also contained heirloom recipes handed down from generation to generation. Of course, the chicken and dressing recipe was included.
Grandma continued to make the chicken and dressing well into her 80s. My Mom, Evelyn Starkey Burnett, took up the mantle of responsibility for the chicken and dressing in Grandma’s last year as she battled cancer. Grandma passed away in 2007 and the family gatherings at her house ceased.
But the chicken and dressing recipe lives on. Evelyn makes it every Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas and takes it to practically every Pleasant Valley Baptist Church Homecoming and funeral meal. She also makes it for the monthly fellowship dinners held at the church.
“This recipe is a part of our family’s history and heritage. We have spent many happy times together visiting and eating chicken and dressing,” said Evelyn.
Evelyn’s kitchen is of her own design; she drew out the plans for the house that my Dad, Eddie Burnett, built on the hill above Grandma’s house about 17 years ago. The kitchen is in the center of the octagonal-shaped living area and has custom cabinets circling a center island with a work sink. She has two ovens, so she has room to cook the chicken and dressing as well as everything else.
“I used a computer program to draw out the house plans. My husband, Eddie, built the custom cabinets. Having a work sink near the two ovens really helps when preparing a large meal for family.”
Evelyn had made some adjustments to the recipe over the years. She uses her food processor to chop the onions and mix the bread after they are finely chopped. She also has added more ground sage as desired to taste. After mixing all ingredients together and before baking, she also sprinkles baking powder on top of the uncooked dressing and folds it in. Adjustments have also been made to the type and size of the baking pan and the temperature of the oven to insure doneness.
Today Thanksgiving dinners at Mom’s house are much smaller affairs. My brother, Robert, and I have only one son each so there are usually only eight seated at Mom’s Thanksgiving table. But family tradition is continued as all dig into the chicken and dressing, remember the cooks of previous generations and thanking Mom for continuing to use this family recipe.