As long as there is gravy, things are good

Published 11:59 pm Friday, October 16, 2009

I had never heard of tomato gravy until I moved to Andalusia, and I’m from the south. It was served at Buck Creek Baptist Church at a dinner where the men cook for the women every year right before Christmas. I cannot say that I really liked it, but it gave me a new meaning for gravy.

Gravies moisten and flavor the foods they accompany, and in most Southern kitchens they are usually thickened with flour and occasionally cornmeal. Southern gravies are called pan gravies because they are made in the skillet with drippings from the fried foods. Southerners enjoy many different types of gravies that go with a range of dishes and meals.

Brown gravy is prepared with beef drippings and often served over beef and potatoes. At the Ajax Diner, in Oxford, Miss., (I have eaten there and it is good), there is a locally cherished sandwich called the Big Easy, named in honor of onetime Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning. This sandwich is made with layers of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, and butterbeans, topped with thick brown gravy. Talk about good!!

Chicken gravy is made from the pan drippings of fried chicken. In his song “Lazy Bones” Savannah-born composer Johnny Mercer writes, “Long as there is chicken gravy on your rice/ Ev’rything is nice.”

White gravy, also called cream gravy, is an all-purpose gravy boiled with milk or cream, served over biscuits for breakfast or chicken-fried steak for dinner. When crumbled sausage and drippings from the pan are added, it is commonly called sawmill or sausage gravy. The sawmill gravy may suggest poverty, as the limited diet of coffee, biscuits and gravy was the stable of the backwoods sawmill workers. Some Southern cooks make gravies with a white roux, a boiled but not browned mixture of butter and flour, which becomes a thickening agent for white sauce.

Redeye gravy is a ham gravy made from the drippings of fried country ham, loosened with cola, coffee or water. Legend implicates that Andrew Jackson named this gravy. He supposedly ordered a whisky-drinking cook to bring him ham with gravy “as red as your eyes.” More likely the name redeye comes from the deep red color of the juice from the country ham.

Another popular gravy in Appalachia is chocolate gravy, sweet gravy prepared with cocoa and poured over biscuits for breakfast. Chocolate gravy also enjoys a rich history in the cooking of the Arkansas Ozarks, although it origins are unknown.

Less-known, but still notable, gravies include egg gravy thickened with eggs; baloney gravy stirred in the pan drippings of fried baloney, and squirrel gravy cooked with fried squirrel and served for breakfast instead of sausage gravy. More obscure still are gravies made with wild game, pig’s feet and oysters.

Gravy shows up in a range or literature creations as well. James Agee documents the connection between gravy and a sense of home place in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1939). In recording sharecropping families in Hale County, Ala., Agee comments on the importance of food, although scarce, to the sensory experience of home. Describing one home amidst the constant consumption of biscuits and gravy from pork he writes: “There is even in so clean a household as this an odor of pork, of sweat, so subtle it seems to get into the very metal of the cooking pans…yet this is the odor and consistency and temper and these are true tastes of home.”

Everyone has heard of giblet gravy. I always try to do this gravy at Thanksgiving. Here is Edna Lewis’s recipe from The Gift of Southern Cooking.

Giblet Gravy

The Giblet Broth:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Neck and giblets reserved from turkey

1 carrot, peeled and diced

1 small onion, diced

1 stalk celery, diced

1 teaspoon salt

3 whole black peppercorns

3 whole cloves

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

3 parsley stems

1 cup white wine

3 cups water

4 cups chicken stock

The Gravy:

8 tablespoons butter (1 stick)

8 tablespoons all-purpose flour

6 cups reduced giblet broth

Chopped turkey-neck meat and giblets reserved from giblet broth

Pan drippings from roasting the turkey

3 tablespoons brandy

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

To make the broth: Heat the butter in a large saucepan until hot and foaming. Chop the turkey neck into 1/2-inch pieces and add it with the giblets to the hot butter. Cook the pieces, stirring from time to time, until they are deeply browned all over. Add the carrot, onion, celery, and salt, and cook, stirring often, for five minutes or longer, until the vegetables begin to brown. Add the peppercorns, cloves, bay leaf, thyme and parsley stems, and continue cooking five minutes longer. Add the wine, water, and chicken stock, and bring to a gentle boil. Skim the broth, and lower the temperature so that the partially covered broth is barely simmering. Simmer for two hours, or until the giblets are tender. Strain the broth, reserving the neck and giblets. Return the broth to heat and simmer, uncovered, until reduced to six cups. While the broth is reducing, remove the meat from the turkey-neck pieces and chop it and the giblets finely. Reserve.

Make the gravy: Heat the butter in a large saucepan until melted. Stir in the flour, and cook over moderately high heat, stirring constantly, until a deep, even brown, about eight to 10 minutes. Whisk in the reduced broth and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the gravy thickens-about five minutes. Add the reserved chopped neck meat and giblets, reserved pan drippings, brandy, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and simmer five minutes longer. Taste carefully for seasoning, and add more salt and pepper as needed. Transfer to a bowl or gravy boat, and serve with the turkey and dressing.

From the cookbook, Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, by Martha Hall Foose.

Red Eye Gravy With Ham

Makes 1 cup

1 teaspoon unsalted butter

8 biscuit-size slices of country ham

1 cup strong black coffee with 1/4 teaspoon sugar, or 1 cup cola soda pop

In a heavy stainless or enameled skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Fry the ham slices for two minutes on each side, or until browned and slightly crisp. Set aside in a warm place. Increase the heat under the skillet and add the coffee. Scrape up the browned bits and then reduce the heat. Simmer for two minutes.

Tomato Gravy

Makes 1 1/2 cups

2 tablespoons bacon drippings or unsalted butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 (14.5-ounce) can stewed tomatoes, with juice, or 2 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and seeded

1/2 cup tomato-vegetable juice blend or tomato-and-clam juice

In a heavy stainless steel or enameled skillet, heat the drippings over medium heat. Add the flour and stir with a fork. Cook for two minutes, or until the flour begins to brown. Add the tomatoes and the juice. Simmer for five minutes, or until thickened and bubbly.