In Praise of Gravy
I always considered gravy a fifth food group. Any serious meal requires some kind of gravy in my opinion. Since I rarely see the word on menus these days, I think it deserves recognition.
Gravy is such a common term – in all senses of the word. It sounds homey, even lower class - not fancy. It almost defines home cooking. Finding that it met the definition of a “sauce”: “A flavorful liquid usually thickened, which is used to season, flavor and enhance other foods.” I got carried away and read about all kinds of sauces that meet this definition in some way savory or sweet. There are five “Mother Sauces”: White (Bechemel made with milk or cream and a pinch of nutmeg), Veloute (made with flour and a light stock), Brown (Madeira) made with brown stock, mirepoix and tomatoes, thickened with flour, Tomato (Marinara – Italians call it gravy in the US), Egg and butter (Hollandaise and Mayonnaise) and a gazillion salad dressings and sweet sauces, but back to plain old gravy.
Most cuisines utilize some kind of sauce in preparing classic dishes. Gravy is peasant food in today’s world, but cream or milk gravy (I have heard it called “Sawmill gravy) is a close relative of Bechamel sauce (cream gravy without the pinch of nutmeg.) and au jus is simply a watery seasoned beef gravy.
When I was growing up, there were two main kinds of gravy – described in simple, no nonsense terms – white gravy made with rich milk (we had a cow) was served with chicken or pork and brown gravy with pot roast. Mama often made a pot roast for Sunday dinner. The roast baked with potatoes, carrots and onions while we were in church. We rushed back to make the gravy and serve the food as close to my Daddy’s twelve o’clock deadline as possible.
On the rare occasions we drove the 40 miles to Joplin to do some serious shopping, we would have lunch at the Connor Hotel coffee shop. We always ordered the “roast beef sandwich” a plate of sliced beef swimming in brown gravy, mashed potatoes and two slices of white bread. It was a special treat to eat in a restaurant and we wanted our money’s worth.
Learning foreign cooking terms was far in my future – Mama never heard of Julia Child until after I went away to college and had no interest in following her path so far as I know. She wouldn’t know a curry if it met her in the street. I had to learn how to pronounce au jus in an early job as a waitress at a nearby resort. It was my first encounter with a fancy French cooking term. “with juice” just doesn’t sound the same on a menu describing a nice serving of prime rib.
At that same little resort, all of the food was cooked from scratch just like Mama did and it was top notch. How I wish I had collected some of the recipes, especially the salad dressings and soups. Ginger Blue is where I learned to like another kind of gravy – Red Eye. The owner bought specially cured hams from a farmer in Southwest City. They came covered with mold “Those hams aren’t good unless they are green,” I remember him saying. At any rate, the hams were carefully trimmed before they were prepared further for steaks. Any meat and fat not used for steaks were used for recipes and seasoning. Like Mama, the cook didn’t waste any food.
But the gravy! After the ham steaks were fried, black coffee was poured into the skillet to mix with the relatively small amount of fat, the mixture didn’t blend completely, and forms little circles of fat – thus Red Eyes - when poured over a sizzling ham steak, a delicious broth.
After doing some research, I learned that gravies are usually described in simple terms – white, brown, or tomato by ordinary Americans. Rarely does home cooking involve more intricately constructed sauces.
The name persists in a piece of china that no one wants to day – a gravy boat. I haven’t seen a gravy boat in years. That is too bad, because there is nothing so delicious as a silky smooth gravy served over a mound of homemade mashed potatoes.
Pass the gravy please.