We finish our visit to the kitchen this month, and the wonderful flavors and foods found in Southern cuisine, with a discussion on “cream gravy.”
If you don’t recognize it by that name, don’t feel left out.
Cream gravy can also be called, white gravy, milk gravy, country gravy, sawmill gravy, sausage gravy and in parts of Kentucky it is called “poor-do.”
The difference is actually a reflection on the circumstances of the family on whose table the tasty mixture is served. That is, wealthier households tend to call it “cream” or “milk” gravy.
Those of us who had to stretch a dollar, if we even had one, may have been raised to call it “country gravy.”
The name “sawmill gravy” is said to have originated in the kitchens of logging camps, where the thick gravy looked like it had a little sawdust mixed in with it.
The dish actually can be traced back several centuries and to regional French cooking.
French chefs would take equal parts of butter and flour and mix them in a hot skillet, and then add milk until a creamy white sauce was created.
This was then used to enhance various dishes that would be fitting for a king or queen.
The tradition of mixing cooking grease with a little flour dates even earlier and was the base for brown gravy, like that we still see every Thanksgiving.
But the big difference between the white country gravy served in Middle Tennessee and throughout the South, and brown gravy, is the source of the cooking grease — the humble pig!
As our last three articles have noted, the pig is the basic ingredient in many Southern dishes, from breakfast to lunch to supper. Pork is just a part of our distinct heritage.
When the wife of the early settler cooked breakfast with thick-cut slices of bacon or breakfast sausage, she was left with a sizable amount of grease — or melted pork fat — in the skillet.
Country people have a saying about pigs: ”We ate every part of the pig except the oink!”
There was no sense in letting the grease go to waste, so the cook took the idea of the English roux (meat fat and flour) and the French béchamel sauce (butter and flour and milk) and combined them to make “country gravy.”
It is no doubt a poor man’s dish. That is one reason it was called “poor-do” in rural Kentucky. It was one way the poor could make do.
And despite its humble beginnings, it is tasty and sticks to your ribs when you have a full day’s work ahead of you.
Country gravy rose in prominence when settlers were able to get flour at their local grist mill.
Remember, the first bread on the frontier was cornbread.
When people were able to raise wheat and mills could produce flour, biscuits made their way onto the table. Country gravy and biscuits found out that they were just made for each other.
Biscuits were actually high class for most farm families and were usually reserved for Sunday lunch or when company came. It took a long time for biscuits to replace cornbread on the table.
Likewise bread was not quick to take its place on the plate, as that too required flour and making a loaf of bread was not as easy or cheap as making a pan of cornbread.
Above the Mason-Dixon Line, loaf bread takes the place of biscuits on the breakfast table. And while our white country gravy does make a slice of toast taste better, people up north don’t have it in their vocabulary.
The recipe is simple. Take equal parts of bacon or sausage grease and flour, then add a cup or two of sweet milk. As it thickens, you can add some crumbled-up sausage and then add salt and pepper.
The more milk you add the thinner the gravy, and by adding less milk you get a thicker gravy.
It you let the flour cook too long it turns brown and so does the gravy, but it is the pig grease that is the magic ingredient. This Thanksgiving all Southerners can thank that humble farm animal for its contribution to our breakfast table!