The turkey's not the only one to gobble up the Thanksgiving season.

Holiday diners abound with rotund silhouettes, stretched stomachs and glimpses of gluttony.But of all the participants in the annual feast, the turkey expects a stuffing - a plentiful pile-up of every interior nook and cranny.

Stuffing is as traditional as the Thanksgiving celebration itself, though the "Stove Top" generation would scarcely recognize the Pilgrim product.

Pilgrim stuffings were called "puddings in the belly," a combination of egg yolks, bread crumbs, pine nuts and veal. Cranberries were also included rather than used in a sauce, since sugar was not widely available. Meat pies with chunks of meat placed in a pastry shell and congealed with hot fat drippings were also served.

Some food historians suggest that stuffing may be a derivative of "forcemeat," a dense mixture of ground meat, spices and herbs. The difference between the two is that the forcemeat is tightly packed and is usually cut and served with the meat, while the stuffing is loosely packed, scooped out and served on the side.

Regardless of its historical origin, stuffing owns a predictable place in the Thanksgiving feast menu.

And with a predictable recipe.

Folks are fussy about their stuffing. For dressing to assume its comfortable place on the dining table, it must follow the time-worn recipe of dried bread cubes, preferably homemade, onion, celery, sage, butter and turkey stock.

Maybe there's an old family recipe with a touch of sausage or a crumb of cornbread, but on the whole, we cast a ballot for traditional ingredients.

When the vote tally is totaled, stuffing is the most popular part of the Thanksgiving dinner.

Julia Malloy, associate food editor at Better Homes and Gardens admits to baking extra stuffing, "because when seconds go around, it's the stuffing I reach for first."

The secret lies in the flavor combinations.

Anthony Dias Blue, San Francisco food commentator, chef and author of "Thanksgiving Dinner," explains, "Stuffing is a self-contained dish. Its close contact with the turkey (or other poultry) creates a strong bond. The turkey takes on the flavors of the stuffing, and the stuffing absorbs the juices and flavors of the turkey. In fact, stuffing is the ideal vehicle for adding seasonings to the essentially monochromatic turkey."

Why not make this the year to add a new flavor experience to the bland bird menu?

Experimenting with ingredients such as wild rice, oysters, nuts, mushrooms, apples or spinach may be the wake-up call your holiday feast deserves.

- REGARDLESS OF THE RECIPES you use, stuffing must be carefully handled in cooking.

To be safely cooked, dressing must reach 165 degrees, especially if it includes giblets, raw meat or eggs. With large birds, the center of the stuffing can still be undercooked when the turkey is done. Consequently, if the turkey is stuffed, an extra 30-60 minutes should be added to the roasting time.

Rick Rodgers, author of "The Turkey Cookbook," offers suggestions for successful stuffing:

1. Rather than stuffing the turkey cavity, fill the interior with aromatics and seasonings and bake the stuffing separately.

2. If you stuff turkey, do so just before roasting. A general rule is to allow 3/4 to 1 cup moistened stuffing per pound of dressed weight turkey.

3. Stuffing should be kept airy and not compressed when filling the center of the turkey. Dressing expands during baking, and in extreme cases, the bird has been known to burst.

4. To bake stuffing on the side, mix it with an extra 1/2 cup stock or water to keep it moist. Spoon into a buttered casserole, cover and bake at 350 degrees until the stuffing is completely heated through and any raw ingredients are cooked, usually about 30 minutes. For a crusty top, remove the cover half-way through.

5. Italian or French breads make the best old-fashioned stuffings.

6. Remove all stuffing from the turkey before serving. Refrigerate leftover stuffing separately from the meat and use within 2 days.

Recipes listed:

Pistachio and Apple Stuffing

Wild Rice Stuffing

Fruit and Sausage Stufing

Old-Fashioned Cornbread Dressing

Nutty Two-Bread Stuffing

Lancaster County Dressing

Lemon Spinach Dressing