Alexander Smalls is a chef, restaurant owner, cookbook author, opera singer and Al Roker's friend for over 30 years. Smalls visited Al's new podcast, "Cooking Up a Storm with Al Roker" to share his recipe for Thanksgiving dressing — not stuffing — that is flavorful, complex and promises to be the star of your feast.
This exceptional recipe for Low-Country Oyster Cornbread Dressing with crispy slab bacon is inspired by the flavors from Smalls' childhood in South Carolina. And to set the record straight, he explained to Al the difference between dressing and stuffing.
"Dressing is out of the bird, stuffing is in the bird," he said.
To make this very special dressing, the main ingredients you'll need are day-old buttermilk cornbread, dry toasted white bread, oysters, slab bacon, chicken stock and some of your favorite vegetables.
Smalls cuts the bacon and bakes it in a pan, making sure to reserve enough to eat some while he cooks (chef's secret). Bake until it's almost overcooked so it has a dry consistency that will hold it up in the final product. Next, it gets crisped up even more in a cast iron skillet. The oysters get shucked, reserving the juice by straining it through cheesecloth to remove the sediment. And if you decide to use a cornbread mix to save time, Smalls says that's perfectly fine, too.
While they cooked, Al asked Smalls about his Thanksgiving favorites, shucking oysters from the "old country," and seeing life through two lenses — music and food.
What's your favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal?
Oh my God, eating? But if I walk backwards from that, I love preparation. From planning the menu, shopping, the prep work. It starts days in advance. So I love that whole ballet, really. And then, of course, there's nothing like laying the spread out on the table. It's festive and full and celebratory. And you've got the best china, and you've got the best everything. And, you know, you can't wait to feed your guests.
When you were a kid growing up, what was the dish that you couldn't wait for?
Well, no surprise, the dressing. The dressing had the most flavors: It had the juice of the turkey, it had the gravy of the turkey, it was full of savory spices and aromatics, and an excuse to pile tons of cranberry sauce on top.
What's the special connection between oysters and your dad?
My father created the oyster cornbread dressing. My father had, maybe, five dishes that he made supremely. They were just unbelievable. And he made nothing else. If you asked him to boil water, it would be questionable. But those five dishes, they were all these low country, heirloom recipes.
And we used to sit at the kitchen table and shuck oysters together. He and my grandfather would make a trip down to what we used to call the "old country," down to Beaufort, South Carolina, where our relatives had all this property and land. And they would fish and do all this stuff. And they would come back with just baskets of oysters and crab. And I remember the black cast-iron pot in the backyard that would get lit up and they would have oyster boils and they'd have crab boils and all this stuff would be going on.
So, it comes out of that kind of ritual. My dad and I would sit at the table, and he taught me how to pop oysters at an early age.
Describe, for people who don't know, what is low country cuisine?
If you don't know, goodness, you've been missing it. It's regional cooking heavily and directly influenced by West Africa. It is the low country, which consists of Charleston, Beaufort, Savannah, the Gullah Islands. This is below sea level, hence "low" country. But it’s also one of those places where a lot of the customs of West Africa were observed, and a part of the day-to-day living.
This dish has such a complex flavor profile. How do you adjust the other dishes that you're making for Thanksgiving so that this doesn't stand out? Unless you want this to be the centerpiece?
Well, I don't adjust things. Because, first of all, it's an ensemble piece — every meal that you cook. But then, you always have solos, and you have stars. This is a star dish. It's not for everyone, because some people just simply throw some fruit and some breadcrumbs and call it a day. But, for me, this is a complete, satisfying dish that could stand on its own.
How did you transition from opera to being a chef?
I have seen life through two lenses: music and food. And in fact, in my last cookbook, I bring all that together — "Meals, Music, and Muses" — where essentially, I talk about my life through the lens of music genres, opera, gospel. So as a kid I started taking classical piano. And that then evolved into my desire to sing, and to sing opera.
In the meanwhile, I had lots of chefs in my family. And food was everything. You grow up in South Carolina, in a small, one-horse town, everything revolved around the table. And food. And everything happened there. I learned early that the person who had the power was the person who wielded the spoon in the kitchen.
What’s the one thing people need to know if they're hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year?
First of all, you have to offer variety. Because you have people with so many limitations or concerns. I'm the person who will have two or three meats on the table. But then I have some of my vegan friends who've come to dinner. And I make sure I have tons of vegetables, legumes, lots of beans, lots of non-protein products, to be very satisfying.
And in some instances, I might make the vegetarian version of my dressing. This when you really bring in the spices, the sage, the rosemary, to really amp up the flavor for those people.
But anytime you invite people for a Thanksgiving celebration, you have to be generous. It starts with generosity. And that generosity starts with everything you do, and everything you make, and everything you offer. And how dare you run out of anything? You’d better not.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity — for the full conversation, listen to "Cooking Up a Storm with Al Roker" wherever you find your podcasts.