Don’t forget the meat grinder,” my wife reminded me late Monday night as we ran through our mental checklist for the long drive to Virginia.

“Already got it,” I replied. “And the recipe, too.”

And so it begins. Another Thanksgiving – and with it, the never-ending ritual of Grandma Nemitz’s stuffing.

How it began, I haven’t a clue. But from the deepest recesses of my childhood memory, I can still see it plain as day: Early Thanksgiving morning … the cold turkey sitting in the roasting pan next to the pre-heating oven … my father running the boiled giblets, the celery, the onion and the sauteed pork cutlet through a hand-cranked grinder … we kids, all eight of us, scampering in and out of the crowded kitchen.

My paternal grandparents lived in faraway Wisconsin, so Thanksgivings with them were few and far between. But always, without fail, there was that recipe card with the words “Turkey Dressing” written across the top in my mother’s impeccable penmanship.

Let me be honest here. The long-distance relationship between my mother and her mother-in-law was not without its tension.

Still, Mom knew a great stuffing recipe when she saw one. So, perhaps substituting the parsley, rosemary and thyme for an olive branch, she teamed up with Dad each Thanksgiving morning to create what later in the afternoon would be the centerpiece of our holiday feast.

Good doesn’t begin to describe this concoction of stale bread, eggs, spices, celery, onion, pork and those mysterious-looking organs that always seemed so disproportionately tiny for a bird so big. Grandma Nemitz’s stuffing – with its steamy aroma, its not-too-moist-not-too-dry consistency and, oh, that flavor – reduced the actual turkey to a mere carrying case.

It was there in the early ’70s when we’d gather before dinner to pound on our guitars and sing at the top of our lungs about “The Circle Game” and about how the times indeed were a-changing. “Oh please,” my mother would implore us, conducting the melodies with her turkey baster, “sing Mr. Tambourine Man!”

It was there that bittersweet Thanksgiving in 1979 when I sprang my sister Beth for the day from the cancer wing at Massachusetts General Hospital, promising a skeptical doc that I’d have her back as soon as she’d relished a taste, however small, of that stuffing. It would be her last – Beth was but 21 when she died the following February.

It was there one year in the mid-’90s when my wife and I hosted Thanksgiving, but had the good sense to share the cooking (we numbered in the 30s by then) with Mom and Dad. Never will I forget that moment Dad lost his grip removing the gargantuan bird from the oven and it slid clear across the kitchen floor. By the grace of God, the stuffing survived.

The stuffing was already cooking the year we went for a hayride to Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth, singing and sipping hot cider the entire way. I can still see my older sister Ann bundled up against the chill – we would lose her to breast cancer the following August.

It was there the year I videotaped the family’s red-cheeked gaggle of young cousins as they played a pre-dinner game of hide-and-seek along the banks of the Charles River in Needham, Mass. I shot most of it from a distance, my clunky old video camera tethered by a 100-foot extension cord to my parents’ garage outlet.

And yes, Grandma Nemitz’s stuffing was there nine years ago today, when we gathered with Mom at sister Meg’s home only two weeks after losing Dad to cancer. How hard it was to get out the grinder that morning, the tears welling in my eyes long before I sliced open the mammoth white onion.

So here we are gathered once again, this time in Virginia at the home of my nephew, Will, and his lovely wife, Kara.

Kara is a planner. Last week, she emailed her entire menu to us all: turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, sauerkraut, another veg dish, pineapple casserole, cranberry relish, applesauce, stuffing, pumpkin pie, Chilean lemon pie, pecan pie, ice cream.

I called my sister Maripeg, Kara’s mother-in-law, to ask about that “stuffing” reference.

“Should I bring the meat grinder?” I asked, not wanting to throw a monkey wrench into Kara’s meticulously planned cuisine.

“I’m not sure,” Maripeg replied. “Let me get back to you.”

Moments later, after consulting with the host and hostess, Maripeg texted me, “Grandma Nemitz stuffing’s a go!”

Meaning I’ll rise extra early this Thanksgiving morning, as my father did before me and his father did before him, guided by my own gravy-stained computer printout titled “Grandma Nemitz’s Stuffing Recipe.”

I’ll feel my grandparents, my parents and my late sisters watching over my shoulder as I extract the giblets from the boiling water and set aside the broth to use ever-so-sparingly as a moistener.

I’ll reflect on Grandma Nemitz, who passed away in 1988. Did she ever imagine that a recipe so simple would become so woven into our family lore that my son (and her great-grandson) Karl, unable to join his tribe for Thanksgiving in Massachusetts last year, whipped up his own batch in his tiny Manhattan kitchen?

As I gently knead the stuffing bread into the wet stuff, I’ll roll the word “nostalgia” around in my head. It derives from the Latin “nostos,” meaning homecoming, and “algos,” meaning “pain, ache.” On days like this, who among us does not ache to go home?

Finally, after we take our seats at that long table and give thanks for our many blessings, we’ll all make a beeline for that bowl that always seems to empty long before the others.

Every family needs its soul food.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.