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The Southern soul in seafood dressing

In the mid-1990s, I walked into the dining room at my maternal grandmother’s house in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was Thanksgiving, one of my earliest memories of a holiday that regularly took place at that same home throughout my life.

I’d just traveled with my immediate family from my hometown of Houston the day before, bringing groceries and cookware for the day ahead. I glanced at multiple tables filled with what seemed like dozens of dishes: turkey, brown sugar-glazed ham, sweet potato pie, collard greens and ham hocks, mac and cheese, gravy and, well … you get the gist. But it wasn’t those dishes, all expertly prepared, that caught my attention. It was a casserole dish, bubbling at the top, with bits of seafood peeking out. It was seafood dressing prepared by Jacklyn Williams, better known as “Aunt Jackie.”

“I’ve been making this dish for years because the flavors are what we enjoy right around here, and it’s just a good dish to bring for the holidays,” Aunt Jackie told me.

My aunt has always been a figure of joy, and unfathomable strength. Her seafood dressing, which she says “just came about one day,” reminds me of the joy and vibrancy that she brings to our family. “The flavor is important, but you also have to put your love into it,” she told me. “The love you add to it is what makes the dressing yours.”

Aunt Jackie’s seafood dressing (the full recipe will likely never fully be revealed), follows an age-old Black recipe process: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. It is, of course, much more complex. Taking her mother’s guidance to heart, she creates a cornbread dressing, starting with drying the cornbread for two or three days. She adds the usual butter, stock, eggs to bind, and herbs and spices such as sage, thyme and a fair share of cayenne. (I told you we’re from South Louisiana.) She also adds protein-like sausage. But the real treat comes from the waters near Baton Rouge, where shrimp and crawfish are abundant. As Aunt Jackie knows, our people have always been good at using what we have around us.

The seafood dressing is incredible. Soft, buttery and layered with flavors from the sea, the dish has become legend in our family. There were plenty of all-in-good-fun arguments over how big a scoop of the dressing everyone could take. And Aunt Jackie, a woman who admittedly loves familial praise, didn’t shy away from the positive attention.

While I associated the seafood dressing with my aunt and her culinary legacy, as I got older, I recognized that there was something deeper there. There’s a ritual in African American Thanksgiving. The uncle playing dominoes with his nephews; the family members watching the football game until dinner hits the table; aunties gossiping over who’s bringing the sweet potato pie this year (it better not be the relative who just moved up north); the kids wondering if this is the year they’ll finally — finally — get to join the adults’ table.

Chef Nina Compton prepares food for a dinner on Feb. 27, 2016, in Miami Beach, Florida.

Alex Markow/Getty Images for SOBEWFF

These annual traditions of family, gossip and jubilee remind me that the multitudes who exist within the Black experience — though remarkably diverse — often converge at the holiday dinner table. Seafood dressing is one such dish. Like so much Black American history, much work and legacy have been passed down through oral traditions. The chokehold of slavery and subsequent racism and inequality led to many of our works and traditions being lost to space and time. The origins of seafood dressing thus are murky. According to chef and author Alexander Smalls, although the dish is prevalent in Black homes, its origins are likely more connected to regional cooking.

“You usually find seafood in the dressing if the people cooking live coastally or have a coastal influence,” Smalls said. “My father grew up in Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, in the low country, so it was nothing to have seafood in the dressing. You see that in many communities on these Southern coasts.”

It’s not clear who created or developed a recipe for the first seafood dressing. What is clear, however, is that Louisiana, where my family has lived for generations, has been deeply touched by the legacy of Black fishermen and cooks who paved the way for a seafood-centric cuisine.

In my reporting for the Southern Foodways Alliance, I found that Black fishing traditions date to pre-enslavement in West Africa. Along Ghana’s Gold Coast and the West African coast, men were revered for their maritime and fishing skills and traditions. The Fante and Kru people of the Gold Coast and the Liberian Kru community were recognized by European voyagers. Harvard researcher Emmanuel Akyeampong found that European ship captains regularly recruited West African fishermen for work, and the skill of these fishermen was especially enticing to many of the newly arrived Europeans.

Once brought to the United States, West African fishermen passed along these skills orally, influencing coastal regions such as South Louisiana, where Creole and Cajun cuisine reign supreme, and the Carolinas, where the Gullah Geechee people have been fundamental in the development of low country cuisine. A case study shows that Black fishermen dominated the fishing industry well into the early 20th century, before white Americans saw a financial opportunity. Though industrialization and marginalization led to a decrease in the number of Black commercial fishermen in the South, their influence on Southern cuisine is undisputed.

Chef Leah Chase in the kitchen of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans on Jan. 19, 2015.

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

In Houston, chef Chris Williams works with Black commercial fisherman Fred McBride to catch and sell local fish and serve it in stunning, delicious fashion. At Lucille’s, the restaurant named for Williams’ great-grandmother, grilled octopus is served over green coconut curry, seasoned with coriander and served with roasted peanuts. Seared scallops are placed atop fried grits cakes and are smothered with applewood smoked bacon, diced peppers and sage brown butter. Williams’ Gulf fish takes Captain Fred’s sheepshead and turns it into a restaurant favorite. The fragrant fish is served with moss-colored gumbo z’herbes and hoppin’ John.

In the Georgia and Carolinas, deviled crab, oysters on the half shell and okra stew with seafood dominate restaurant menus. Shrimp and grits are a staple of Southern brunch, and New Orleans wouldn’t be New Orleans without the crawfish étouffée, shrimp étouffée and seafood gumbo that fill homes and kitchens across the city.

And of course, in Louisiana, Black chefs have developed, amplified and transformed the possibilities of seafood. In New Orleans, chef Edna Lewis’ shrimp and grits were an ode to the abundant gifts of the nearby waters, and Leah Chase’s shrimp Clemenceau showed the ingenuity of Black female cooks. Chef Leon West educated chefs and home cooks eager to deepen their understanding of African American influences on Cajun and Creole cooking.

We also see them in the ingeniousness of the present. Chef Nina Compton, owner of award-winning restaurant Compère Lapin, serves a Jamaican-style snapper escovitch with carrot beurre blanc. It’s one of many seafood-based dishes that have come to define the New Orleans-based chef and brought her national recognition.

The importance of seafood in Black cuisine doesn’t just exist in restaurants. For Louisianian home cooks, seafood is an essential part of the food that’s demonstrative of our culture and our love for our community and history.

Aunt Jackie’s Thanksgiving seafood is something to be enjoyed during the holidays. But, as we see from recipes in cookbooks and online recipe repositories, seafood dressing has a significant place across Black foodways. David Osei has a popular recipe for his mom’s seafood dressing, low country cooks have shared their own versions of the dish, using regional seafood, and American chef and soul food ambassador Carla Hall has developed a brilliant recipe for cornbread and oyster dressing.

Seafood dressing is a remarkable demonstration of African American culinary ingenuity and the important role home cooks play in our foodways. For my Aunt Jackie, seafood dressing is a way to celebrate what matters most to her: family.

“A dish like this connects the family, and when you do this kind of dish, you keep these traditions going, regardless of whether it’s the original dish or something that you add on and make it your own,” she said. “You feel connected with family, and when I make it, that’s what really matters to me.”

Kayla Stewart is an award-winning food and travel writer. She is a columnist at The Bittman Project, and her work has been featured in The New York Times, Southern Foodways Alliance, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, Texas Monthly and others. She splits her time between New York City and Houston, Texas.