From Stove Top to fancy farro: Your class could dictate what stuffing you'll make

Sally Heimann’s daughter, Liz, left, with Rachel (son Andy’s girlfriend) and Andy. Andy is working on making pecan pie.

Is brioche with wine-soaked currants your idea of the perfect Thanksgiving stuffing?

Or are you more of a store-bought kind of person?

What stuffing you eat tells the world a little about you — maybe even what social class you’re in.

We think of class as money, but it’s also a compendium of habits, “an accumulation of cultural programming we learn from our families,” says Janet Chrzan, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

Class teaches us how to talk, think, dress, and — most important for this time of year — eat.

For many lower-income people with limited time and cash, social scientists say, the stuffing of choice is often a product such as Stove Top Stuffing, the venerable turkey accompaniment created around 40 years ago by Purdue University-educated home economist Ruth Siems.

On the upper end of the scale, many of the well off tend to go with classic American choices rooted in rural and working-class tradition, such as cornbread stuffing, according to food experts.

And in between, middle-class cooks can get positively aspirational, said Joslyn Brenton, a sociologist at Ithaca College who studies food and families. “Many middle-class families will seek out elaborate, complicated stuffing recipes,” combining farro, kale, and fancy dried fruits and using every pot in the kitchen, Brenton said. “They identify themselves as foodies, and will get recipes from gourmet magazines and take pride in making time-consuming meals.”

Of course, none of this is written in stone.

Judging by the estimated 60 million boxes of Stove Top Stuffing bought each year, for example, quite a few people of varying class backgrounds appear to be enjoying the out-of-turkey experience it brings.

And many low-income Americans will take on extraordinary financial burdens just to make a fancy Thanksgiving meal for their families, Brenton said.

But it’s not often easy to dissuade people from their preferences and prejudices.

“I’m among the elite and I have high standards,” said Neri de Kramer, who will be contributing a chestnut-and-sage stuffing to a friend’s Thanksgiving feast in Connecticut this year.

“In my circle, nobody would be caught dead with a box of stuffing.”

Camera icon Courtesy of Neri de Kramer
Neri de Kramer making mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving. “In my circle, nobody would be caught dead with a box of stuffing.”

More likely, said de Kramer, an anthropologist at the University of Delaware who lives in East Falls, folks she knows will be hungering for the classics:

“You’ll see people on the Main Line eating scratch-made stuffing recipes that include cornbread and sausage, which is Southern and African American; wild rice from Georgia and the Carolinas; oyster stuffing from New England, and always expensive,” she said. “Chestnuts-and-apple-bread stuffing is original American, while potato stuffing is Amish.”

Such foods have an authenticity that appeals, something Judi Kearney, 70, knows in her bones. Thanksgiving in the working-class home in Ambler she shares with her husband, Tom, a retired union pipefitter, has to include oysters, regardless of cost. Her father had served in the Navy and developed a taste for them. Kearney’s mother learned to make an oyster stuffing — oysters, old saltine crackers, and butter — and it’s now a vital part of the holiday for Kearney, who was a secretary and piano teacher.

Camera icon Courtesy of the Kearney family
Thanksgiving preparations at the Kearney household.

“I still do it to this day, and it’s been 50 years,” she said. “Tradition.”

Eschewing tradition is what works for middle-class chef Jay Kaufman, 60, of Feasterville, who teaches low-income people how to cook at an organization associated with the Salvation Army called Soup’s On in Wynnefield Heights.

When he prepares Thanksgiving at home, he said, he gets performative, experimenting with funky ingredients.  “I try something different to bring a little bit of snap to the meal,” Kaufman said.

His hack: Substitute pomegranate gravy for old-fashioned brown.

But be forewarned, cooks with visions of cherry-and-pancetta stuffing: Despite your efforts to enchant and expand tastes, you might find more than a few guests who crave those pre-packaged stuffings, even at a fancy table.

“Every year I say to my family, ‘Let me try something new,’ but they want the stuffing to be the Pepperidge Farm supermarket stuffing that my mother would make, which I fix up with herbs, onions, celery, and lots of butter,” said Sally Heimann, 58, a nurse practitioner who lives in Wyncote. “So I just stick with it.”

Sometimes such preferences can be frustrating, said de Kramer, who theorized that many of the middle-class people who insist on Stove Top and its like might actually be “hipsters into eating retro-stuffing — the young white consumers who think it’s funny to eat Spam and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, ironically adapting lower-class American food.”

Ironic or not, Stove Top has its beloved and quirky place in the American larder. In the 1950s, the American middle class was enamored of the “time-saving” miracle foods that came in boxes and cans, a convenience cuisine derived from feeding U.S. troops during World War II.

Some 20 years later, Stove Top became the culmination of that kind of processed cooking.

Since then, of course, nutritionists have urged us to try fresh choices.

Puerto Rican-born Iris Pereira, 52, who lives on food stamps below the poverty line in Kensington, understands that.

“I used to buy boxes for Thanksgiving stuffing, but now I make it fresh,” said Pereira. She’s learned to prepare a healthy and inexpensive bread, celery, and onion stuffing at Sunday Suppers, a Kensington program that helps low-income families develop life skills.

Armed with wholesome stuffing, Pereira is looking forward to feeding her four adult children this year.

“People derive their self-worth from feeding their families,” Brenton said. “And if you can’t celebrate food holidays like Thanksgiving, you don’t feel you have full citizenship in our society.”