Thanksgiving originated in Plymouth Rock, Mass., but one of the holiday’s popular dishes - store-bought stuffing - actually has its roots in San Diego, thanks to a pioneering home economist by the name of Sophie Cubbison.
Beginning at age 16, she put herself through college with money she earned by cooking, raising enough dough to attend Cal Poly San Luis Obisbo, where she was one of the few women in the country attending college.
She majored in home economics and, in 1916, married salesman Harry Cubbison. The two ran a successful bakery specializing in Melba toast (a dry brown bread popular during the 1930s), which her father had taught her to make.
“She was a pioneer who was really ahead of her time,” says Leo Pearlstein, who worked with Cubbison for 32 years until her death in 1982. “She was a health nut from way back and was using soy flour back in the 1920s.”
But things didn’t start cooking for Mrs. Cubbison until 1948, when she created the eponymous brand of stuffing, which was the first ever to be sold in a box. She made it as a way to use the broken bits of Melba toast that couldn’t be sold.
It was a revolutionary idea.
Before Mrs. Cubbison started selling her pre-made stuffing, it was a dish that was time-consuming for consumers to prepare, as it requires drying bread before cutting it.
At first, Cubbison started selling her creation for recipes including stuffed eggplant and breaded pork chops, but when a group of turkey farmers got wind of her stuffing, they began working with her to promote both her product and their Thanksgiving birds.
“She was charming and hard-working,” Pearlstein says. “When I first met her, she was crumbing the bread herself. She called it ‘kibbling,’ but I suggested she call it ‘crumbling,’ because at the time, dog food was called ‘kibble,’ and I didn’t want people to make that connection.”
Mrs. Cubbison’s Stuffing hasn’t become a national brand like Stove Top Stuffing, which appeared in the 1970s (“It’s too expensive for that,” Pearlstein says), but it is the most popular brand in the 11 western states where it’s sold.
Harry Cubbison died in 1953. Mrs. Cubbison retired in 1955 to travel and to work on her home in Highland Park, in Los Angeles County.
“She wanted to do that all her life,” Pearlstein says. “She wanted to see Europe and South America. She told me, ‘People all over the world make the same things but call it something different.’ And she would send my wife and I recipes on postcards.
“However, no matter how much she traveled, she would always be home for Thanksgiving and she would go through the stores to see if they were stocked with the stuffing.”
As for the lima bean farm where she got her start?
“She held on to it until the 1960s when she sold it,” Pearlstein says. “She said she got more money from that than whatever she made from stuffing.”
Editor’s Note: On Nov. 7, the article was updated to reflect an error. It was previously stated Mrs. Cubbison retired to her home in East County San Diego, when it should have said Los Angeles County.