It was difficult to understand him, but through our tried and true method of hand signals, pantomime, clicking sounds and eye blinks, I finally understood that my northern born husband was trying to tell me his New Jersey Great-Grandmother Donatoni made something she called gravy, but it was actually spaghetti sauce. Now, doesn’t that beat all?
Apparently, she used no grease, butter, flour or coffee. There was no cast-iron skillet, and the seasonings were far more numerous than basic salt and pepper, yet . . . they called it gravy. Bless their hearts.
When you see a hot bowl of gravy on a Southern table, preferably in a proper gravy boat or a bowl with a real gravy ladle, it’s usually a white peppery or thick brown concoction which lets you know someone took the time to actually cook — from scratch. Tomato gravy and red-eye gravy are variations on our favorite table-beverage (next to tea), and you know someone has put effort into this meal and probably expects you to sit down, smooth a napkin on your lap (gravy absolutely needs a napkin) and they’ll probably wait for you to bow your head, hold their hand, say a prayer, and use proper utensils to eat a proper meal with proper conversation.
Nonna Donatoni reportedly took all day to cook a big pot of her gravy/sauce and put great effort into cooking the red sauce for those she loved. She ladled her gravy over “macaroni” — which is another one of their tricky words that actually means all kinds of pasta, while our gravy is usually served over potatoes, meat, biscuits, or white rice.
Real Southern gravy usually contains a few lumps to prove it’s homemade. Sure, there’s the powdery instant variety of gravy (so I’ve heard), and there’s a rumor going around that you can find gravy in a can, but that’s obviously for the wild, dangerous crowd who don’t write thank-you notes (run if you see them).
Health concerns and a new generation of families who don’t cook, much less keep a bag of flour in their pantries, have led us to eat meals that look and taste like all the other vittles on the generic Food Network. Other than some seafood down on the coast, or the occasional store-bought fried chicken, Southern meals have taken on the taste and look of Any-Old-Place, USA.
It’s time to bring back the gravy and return the flavor of the South. A little bit of gravy every now and then won’t hurt us (it can’t be worse than the doughnuts we ate this morning), and we’ll once again remember why we love to live here. The heat, insects, and crazed football fans won’t bother us nearly as much if we vow to serve a bowl of gravy once a month. Gravy thickens drawls and smooths family ties. You can’t eat a hot biscuit topped with gravy without smiling and saying “now y’all, that’s good.”
The New Jersey and Alabama Grandmothers may have had different interpretations of gravy, but both versions took time and effort and resulted in a delicious gift for those hungry folks who gathered in their homes. North or South, granny’s gravy was the glue that held us all together and stuck us to the supper table. Good gravy! We have so much in common after all.
See this story on AL.com HERE or in the Huntsville Times, Birmingham News, (Mobile) Press-Register or The Mississippi Press.