stuffing, dressing, filling

The centerpiece of the traditional Thanksgiving meal:

A roasted turkey, with its body cavity filled with a mixture of ingredients that were inside it during the roasting. There is some dispute — well, variation in local usage, about which some people feel proprietary — as to what this mixture is called: stuffing (which is pretty transparent semantically) and dressing (which is puzzling) are the most common alternatives, but some Pennsylvania Dutch folk favor filling (pretty semantically transparent again). But matters are more complicated, since some things called stuffing are used as side dishes, not stuffed into anything.

Then there’s the puzzle of dressing, which turns out to have a surprising etymology, one that connects it to the piece of women’s clothing the dress.

A quick overview from Wikipedia:

Stuffing, dressing or filling is an edible substance or mixture, often a starch, used to fill a cavity in another food item while cooking. Many foods may be stuffed, including eggs, poultry, seafood, mammals, and vegetables.

Turkey stuffing often consists of dried bread, in the form of croutons or cubes, with onion, celery, salt, pepper, and other spices and herbs such as summer savoury, sage, or a mixture like poultry seasoning. Giblets are often used.

… In addition to stuffing the body cavity of animals, including birds, fish, and mammals, various cuts of meat may be stuffed after they have been deboned or a pouch has been cut into them. Popular recipes include stuffed chicken legs, stuffed pork chops, stuffed breast of veal, as well as the traditional holiday stuffed turkey or goose..

Many types of vegetables are also suitable for stuffing, after their seeds or flesh has been removed. Tomatoes, capsicums (sweet or hot peppers), vegetable marrows (e.g., zucchini) may be prepared in this way. Cabbages and similar vegetables can also be stuffed or wrapped around a filling. They are usually blanched first, in order to make their leaves more pliable. Then, the interior may be replaced by stuffing, or small amounts of stuffing may be inserted between the individual leaves.

… The stuffing mixture may be cooked separately and served as a side dish, in which case it may still be called “stuffing”, or in some regions, such as the Southern US, “dressing”.

On that last point: as I noted in a 10/24/14 posting, with a substantial section on the commercial product Stove Top Stuffing, that product is frequently used as a side dish. In addition, many people recommend not roasting a turkey with stuffing inside, but instead cooking it separately (in which case, it’s certainly dressing, not technically stuffing) and putting it inside the cooked turkey at the end of its roasting (to collect tasty juices) — a practice that can help avoiding overcooking the bird when it’s roasted with a stuffing inside.

NOAD2 on stuffing and filling, which are in one sense semantically transparent, but are semantically specialized in various contexts:

1 a mixture used to stuff poultry or meat before cooking.
2 padding used to stuff cushions, furniture, or soft toys.

a quatity of material that fills or is used to fill something: a cushion with polyester filling. [Specifically:]
– a piece of material used to fill a cavity in a tooth: a gold filling.
– an edible substance placed between the layers of a sandwich, cake, or other foodstuff: a Swiss roll with a chocolate filling.

Then we get to dressing, which has an odd NOAD2 entry, somewhat abbreviated here:

1 (also salad dressing) a sauce for salads, typically one consisting of oil and vinegar mixed together with herbs or other flavorings: vinaigrette dressing.
– N. Amer. stuffing: turkey with apple dressing.
2 a piece of material placed on a wound to protect it: an antiseptic dressing.
3 size or stiffening used in the finishing of fabrics.
4 a fertilizing substance such as compost or manure spread over or plowed into land.

What do these things have to do with one another? The answer lies in the verb dress. From NOAD2, which seems to deepen the mystery:

1 [clothing senses: dress oneself, dress something or someone in clothing, dress up, etc.]
2 [with obj.] treat or prepare (something) in a certain way [AZ: far too general a gloss], in particular:
– clean, treat, or apply a dressing to (a wound).
– clean and prepare (food, especially poultry or shellfish) for cooking or eating: (as adj. dressed) : dressed crab.
– add a dressing to (a salad).
– apply a fertilizing substance to (a field, garden, or plant).
– complete the preparation or manufacture of (leather or fabric) by treating its surface in some way.
– smooth the surface of (stone): (as adj. dressed): a tower built of dressed stone.
– arrange or style (one’s own or someone else’s hair), especially in an elaborate way.

Now consider the source of the verb:

ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense ‘put straight’): from Old French dresser ‘arrange, prepare,’ based on Latin directus ‘direct, straight.’

OED2 gives, first of all, an array of obsolete senses that are developments (in various directions) of ‘arrange, prepare’, among them:

‘to make straight; to erect, set up’ from about 1400 on; refl. and intr. ‘to raise oneself, to rise’ from about 1374 on; ‘put things straight, to rights;  to set in order; to manage’ from about 1330 on; ‘to place or set in position’ from about 1386

Finally, we get

trans. To array, attire, or ‘rig out’, with suitable clothing or raiment; to adorn or deck with apparel; in later use often simply, to clothe. spec. To make or provide clothes for (an undressed doll); to put clothes on (an undressed doll). [from about 1440]

plus many of the senses in part 2 of the NOAD2 entry, cropping up in Middle English. The verb radiated in innumerable directions in Middle English, with astounding speed, in a way that makes it hard to see what, say, putting dressing on a salad, smoothing stone, and hairdressing could possibly have to do with one another, not to mention putting one’s clothes on. (Surely modern speakers just see these as different verbs.) The sense in ‘to stuff a turkey’ (or, for that matter, a mushroom) appears even later, in North America.

The noun dress. This is a nouning of the verb, first attesed in 1565. From the OED:

Personal attire or apparel: orig. that proper to some special rank or order of person, or to some ceremony or function [e.g., military dress, formal dress]; but, in later use, often merely: Clothing, costume, garb, esp. that part which is external and serves for adornment as well as for covering. [first cite 1616, in Shakespeare]

The women’s-garment sense of the noun seems to be even more recent, probably 20th century, since the unrevised OED2 doesn’t have it clearly distinguished from the general sense just above.

[Tangent: What’s a dress? NOAD2’s stab at a definition:

a one-piece garment for a woman or girl that covers the body and extends down over the legs.

This doesn’t distinguish a dress from a jump suit (dresses are open at the bottom) or a robe (dresses do not open in front). But other dictionaries don’t get it quite right, either. Merriam-Webster Online does pretty well, but shows us another problem:

an outer garment (as for a woman or girl) usually consisting of a one-piece bodice and skirt

The writer(s) of this entry wanted to distinguish the category (call it G) of garments at issue here from undergarments, but unfortumately outer garment is customarily used to label clothing that’s put on on top of things of category G — things like coats. There are three layers of garments to be distinguished here (underwear, ordinary clothes, and outerwear), but we don’t gave a generally recognized label for the middle category.

In any case, the trick in defining dress is to distinguish a dress from a blouse + a skirt, a robe, a jump suit, a coat, a poncho  (one-piece, open at the bottom, no opening in front, but still nowhere close to a dress), and probably some other things I haven’t thought of.]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: