I’m not sure where to start when telling you about a Frog Level Thanksgiving, but I think I’ll start by telling you that Thanksgiving at Frog Level smells not only of turkey but also of freshly brewed coffee and citrus. You can walk into a home and know a lot about the place you are in. When you read that statement, I bet you immediately think of bad smells like cigarette smoke or dampness or nursing homes. However, when I think of the smell of Thanksgiving at my parents home I think of waking up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and clementines, and the memory of that smell warms me.
Of course along with the coffee and clementines there are many other foods to smell on Thanksgiving: coconut for my mother’s coconut cake, pecans toasting (they’re in almost everything), my father’s legendary cornbread stuffing and turkey roasting. As much as we eat and as much as we enjoy what we eat, the long weekend spent in the Poconos isn’t about the food.
Thanksgiving at Frog Level is about multiple generations of people sharing a friendship that blurs family lines. It’s about laughing, long late-night talks, walks in the woods, croquet in the back yard, word games, card games that you don’t have chance of winning, and lots and lots of food – all of it shared with a special group of people. Everyone comes as frequently as they can. We sleep on any space big enough for an air mattress, and we all leave well-fed, slightly behind on our sleep and with a warm glow that you get from time spent with the closest of family and friends.
None of our weekend long eating/slumber party would be possible if it were not for a very special place; “Frog Level”. Frog Level is the name my father gave to the house and land they own in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania. The name comes from the former name of his home town, Fayette, Alabama. Fayette was originally named Froglevel because it was next to a swamp – or, down at frog level. My father’s Frog Level is a perfect parcel of land near Stroudsburg, PA. The eight acres are bisected by the picturesque Appenzell Creek, and the lush vegetation is certainly home to more than one frog. It’s a special place where we’ve played and grown over the past 17 years. We’ve had boat races in the creek in summer, attempted to hike with snow shoes in the winter. We’ve played lots of croquet, even in the snow, had campfires and burned marshmallows. Each season on Frog Level brings new adventures, and each adventure holds a story for each of us.
If the property is special then the house itself is extraordinary. My parents have poured years of hard work into making this home something more than a place to live. My father tiled the master bathroom with specially ordered tiles depicting all the wildlife seen on the property (and threw in an enormous jetted tub just to gild the lily), and in the upstairs hallway he inlaid two contrasting hardwoods to form a maze in the floor. Most of the woodwork in the house is custom made by my father, some of it even hand-carved. My mother’s mark on the home is the massive sewing room/craft room. She has sewn since childhood, making her own and at least one sister’s wedding dress. Now, in retirement she has focused more on fiber art and quilting. Her sewing room consists of a huge, L-shaped room with a removable wall between it and an a huge upstairs laundry room. It’s not your normal house. Typical house stats don’t do it justice. It’s more than a house, it’s a piece of art disguised as a 4 bedroom, 3 1/2 bath house.
I tell you all these details because of something both exciting and profoundly sad is happening. Frog Level is up for sale. After 17 years, they are selling their dream home to move back to where our family started – Baltimore. I don’t think, when they moved there, they expected to leave. However, much in the way that the creek constantly changes it’s path, so are they. If you are at all interested in owing this one-of-a-kind truly loved home, then please take a moment to follow this link to the house listing. You can also visit their web site to get an idea of their interests.
However, this post is not just about their home. It’s about Thanksgiving and the special place it holds for everyone. While not everyone has a Frog Level, we all try to spend the holiday with those we love and share in the wonderful culinary traditions that are important to us.
Perhaps the most sacred and widely-varied dish that graces most Thanksgiving tables is dressing/stuffing. I’ve never spent a Thanksgiving at a table without it, and every family I’ve shared the Holiday with has a near motherly attachment to their own version and will fight for it’s virtue. The variations are endless: Is it stuffed in the bird – hence the name stuffing, or merely served as a side dish with the bird (dressing); is it made of bread, cornbread, cereals or other grains; it may contain sausage, oysters, nuts or fruit; it may be heavy on herbs or more delicate. The list of variables are never ending.
Since my father started cooking our Thanksgiving dinners in the 1960’s, he has occasionally written down the list of ingredients he put in the dressing for that year. His own notes tell of the evolution from stuffing to dressing. The early recipes called for giblets, boiled eggs and stuffing the bird. Now it is served as a side dish, baked in a casserole dish. Thankfully it’s lost the giblets and boiled eggs. It now has a loose moist texture with a heady mixture of herbs and is studded with toasted pecans. It’s probably not your father’s stuffing, but it is mine, and its is the best version “for me”.
This recipe is as close as I can get to his. I like a firmer texture, therefore I include an egg where his does not. I like to use a combination of breads. In addition to the cornbread, I use some unflavored whole wheat bread (no nuts or seeds) as well as a chewier bread such as Ciabatta. I think that this adds a nice texture to the dish that isn’t there if you use a softer bread like sandwich bread exclusively. If you make poultry stock ahead of time with the turkey neck and giblets (leave out the liver), then you can make this ahead of time as well.
My father never uses a recipe, so my recipe was created with a combination of his own notes, talking to him and from my own memories. It’s very close, but until I created this recipe no one has ever made it the same – even my dad’s changes from year to year.
If you are lucky enough to be at Frog Level for Thanksgiving you’ll enjoy this stuffing for days, as it’s absolutely essential that there be enough to last to the end of the of the turkey leftovers.
I won’t be there this year for the final Frog Level Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving morning I’ll get up with Little Guy here at my home just like any day. I’ll brew myself a cup of coffee, peel a clementine and close my eyes. One smell and I’ll feel like I’m there with everyone. So from Frog Level and here in Boston, we wish you a very happy Thanksgiving full of good food and love. Enjoy!
11/16/2015 Update: I’m happy to say that Frog Level is off the market. My parents couldn’t bear to leave and are happily still there!
- 8 cups cornbread, crumbled (recipe following), crumbled (1 full batch)
- 8 cups bread cubes, cut 3/4" from a combination of hearty wheat and white breads
- 1/2 cup butter (1 stick) or rendered poultry fat, divided
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 2 stalks celery, finely diced (about 1 cup)
- 1 cup pecans, toasted
- 1 tablespoon dried rubbed sage
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 2 teaspoons dried marjoram
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 2 large bay leaves, broken
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
- 4 cups poultry broth (homemade if possible)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Toast the breadcrumbs until slightly crunchy and dry – you do not need to brown them. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add two tablespoon of the butter or fat and allow to melt and start to bubble. Add the onions and celery and cook until very soft but not brown, about 15 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool.
- In a large bowl combine the bread crumbs, crumbled corn bread, onion and celery mixture, all the spices and herbs, salt, pepper, sugar and pecans. Mix everything together well and add the broth and eggs. Mix again allowing the broth to soak into everything and further break apart the bread crumbs. Add additional broth if necessary.
- Pour the mixture into a large glass baking dish or casserole. Bake for long enough to get nice brown crust on top and bottom.
- This recipe is enough for a large crowd and a big turkey. If you don't need the full amount you can half the recipe (keep the one egg) or make a full batch and freeze it.
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1 cup corn meal
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
- 5 tablespoon canola oil (divided)
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees Mix flour, corn meal, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl. In another bowl stir together egg, 3 tablespoons of oil and buttermilk.
- Add remaining oil to a large cast iron skillet and heat in the hot oven for five minutes. While the pan is heating, add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir well. When the pan is hot, remove it from the oven and add the cornbread batter. Return to the oven and cook for 20 minutes or until the top is dark golden brown and the bread is firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before serving.