History on a plate: Why the world loves gravy

Gravy may be a southern American staple, but it has meaning the world over. Do you know the savory roots of this soul food classic?

When you think gravy, you think Southern.

Biscuits and gravy are like peanut butter and jelly, mustard on a hot dog, and ketchup and French fries. When you think of one, you think of another.

But when it comes to biscuits and gravy, that’s the Queen Bey and Jay-Z of foods. The gravy from our aunties’ and mamas’ kitchens has gone through an evolution that started in Europe, made its way to lumber mills, and has now become a breakfast staple.

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Each year, we celebrate Black History Month, which recognizes the accomplishments and contributions of Black people. Through food, we can take these lessons one step further. 

All of the foods Black people love — from mac and cheese to potato salad to sweet potatoes — have roots in other cultures. Exploring those commonalities can help us learn a little more about each other. In essence, these foods can help bring us together.

Americans tend to think of gravy as milk-based and thick, but that’s not the way it always is or even how it started. 

Gravy has been around for centuries, with the earliest mention in The Forme of Cury, a collection of medieval English recipes from 1390. This one recipe has the name “Chykens in Gravey.” The gravy in Medieval times came from the fat drippings of meat that’s more akin to today’s au jus, according to Encyclopedia.com.

Gravy also has different meanings to different people. 

To Italians, gravy can mean spaghetti sauce. One story says that in 1902, an Italian woman called her sauce “gravy” in a New York newspaper, and that’s how the phrase started. Some historians speculate that Italians started using the term gravy to better assimilate into America. 

That use of the phrase may have taken off during “The Sopranos,” arguably the greatest-ever TV show. In one scene set in Artie Bucco’s restaurant, Vito Spatafore turns to mob boss Tony Soprano and says without irony, “gravy’s good tonight.” That one line spawned online debate on the proper term.

In England, Ireland, and the British commonwealth countries, gravy refers to meat drippings flavored with bouillon, herbs, spices, and condiments, with little to no flour. This popular onion gravy recipe works well with bangers and mash, for example.

In Africa, you’ll see the term gravy associated with several dishes that use vegetables like onion and tomatoes to build the sauce. Those dishes include the delicious Liberian Chicken Gravy and Ghanian Gravy

Over time, the English and Americans began adding a roux to the gravy as a thickening agent. That’s when the true transformation from sauce to gravy began.

And while gravy has been a staple in Black families for generations, gravy began as a southern food for poor workers who couldn’t afford much more. 

In the 1880s, southern Appalachia lumber factory workers invented a concoction called “sawmill gravy,” possibly after the sawdust that coated the factory floor. Workers made a basic gravy of pork, milk, and flour, readily available and cheap ingredients that made a filling meal. 

Sawmill gravy has since taken on different variations, including “country gravy,” bacon gravy, and “red-eye” gravy. Just as biscuits have become a staple at any meal, biscuits and gravy have become as common on a breakfast menu as pancakes and eggs.

So what’s the best kind of gravy to use?

Most people prefer a standard sausage gravy, like the one my grandmother taught me to make. Anyone who makes gravy has their variation.

For special occasions — since it’s more work — I like bacon and sausage gravy, with crunchy chunks of bacon complimenting the sausage. Check it out.

Kicked-up bacon and sausage gravy

  • 6-8 slices of bacon 
  • 8 ounces of pork sausage 
  • ¼ cup finely diced onions (optional; I love onions)
  • 1 tablespoon garlic (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour 
  • 3 cups whole milk, 1 cup at a time  
  • 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes, more if you want spicier (I often use two)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Step one: Cook the bacon in a skillet until crunchy and remove only the bacon, leaving the drippings in the pan. Let the bacon drain on a paper towel.

Step two: Add the pork sausage, diced onion, and garlic to the bacon fat. Cook until the sausage is no longer pink, scraping the pan to loosen as many bits as possible.

Step three: Cut the cooked bacon into chunks (or crumble if you like) and add to the pan. Stir

Step four: Add the butter and melt

Step five: add the flour and quickly until well combined. 

Step six: Stir in the milk one cup at a time. This will allow you to control how thick or thin you want your gravy. If you want an even thinner gravy add more milk.

Step seven.  Add the red pepper, and then black pepper and salt to taste. Pour over your favorite biscuits. If you need a recipe, check out my grandmother’s, which I use to this day.

Ray Marcano

Ray Marcano is a veteran journalist who loves to cook and write about food. He’s the former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, a two-time Pulitzer juror, and a Fulbright Fellow.  

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