Good Gravy

September 8, 2018


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 HERE or in the Huntsville Times, Birmingham News, (Mobile) Press-Register or The Mississippi Press. 

  • I’m probably going to have to turn in my Southern Belle card for this. but I can’t make gravy at all. I can fry chicken, and cook grits and my banana pudding is famous in the family, but the ability to make gravy is not in my Southern skill set. However, if you make me some good gravy, I will write the most proper thank you note ever!

    My Mom, who would never consider herself a cook (she always said she cooked only because we had to eat) could make gravy and we loved when she would tear biscuits up and cover them with gravy. She called it a dog’s dish, because when she was a kid, before canned and packaged dog food that’s what they fed their dogs! I always considered it good eating!

  • We are a West Coast (CA) family and my mother always called it spaghetti gravy. We do not have any Italian in our blood, but she would take all day to make the best gravy around. Sure do miss her and her great cooking. I try, but it’s just not the same. I slip every so often and call it gravy, instead of sauce. People give me the funniest looks. Oh well, it’s all the same to me. Thanks for the cute story. I do love biscuits and gravy too!

    • The double name of spaghetti-gravy kind of clears things up. After I posted this story in the newspaper, I saw cajun “gravy” – also a red spaghetti or creole sauce for sale in Rouses. I’ll have to try that next. I’m so adventurous these days!

  • Whatever you call it, the best gravy is made with LOVE! I love me some white gravy liberally poured over chicken fried steak with fried okra. Leslie Anne, I am doling out small doses of the Majorettes to treat myself, just like I do with a box of fine chocolates. The stories make me so proud to be a Southerner, I could cry. I honestly thought my best friend and I invented “jeet”!! It was our code word to sneak away from our lovable Clemson students and go to lunch (they enthusiastically tended to trail after us into the ladies room, the gym, and the grocery store!!).

    • How funny! You made me laugh. So glad you like the book. Thanks Roxanne.

  • My family would think it weird if I told them we would be enjoying pasta and gravy for dinner! Fun story. What a treat when I decide to make homemade (is there any other kind) gravy to laddle onto homemade biscuits and mashed potatoes. Those days do not come often………

    • Whenever my boys would get their braces tightened I’d make them warm mashed potatoes with gravy. they said it was almost worth the pain!

  • Leslie Anne, we love gravy at our hosue, homemade only! Place it on a light as air biscuit, and I hear a symphony!

  • Arlene Cocke says:

    Gosh, just purchased another, probably #80, cook book at P&P this week. To justify another one, the recipe for pork chops and onion gravy just got my attention, because of the promise of really tender pork chops!
    Well, they were and I had not made gravy since last Thanksgiving!!!!
    And there was your gravy article today in the paper!
    Just continue to enjoy your articles, as always!

    • Thanks Jena. Let’s see some gravy recipes over on your blog! I’m sure you have many!

  • I am with you, my Southern Sister in Gravy! Bring it on! The only thing that has kept gravy from my skillet lately is my husband’s lactose intolerance. I tried making it with his special lactose free milk one time and almost gagged on the sweetness. I can’t make it with my milk and make him watch me pour in on my biscuit. You have me so hungry for some good gravy now that I may be forced to have two skillets going at once, one for him and one for me.

    I do love your husband’s kind of gravy too, but on pasta. Making some of that kind on this rainy afternoon but dreaming of your kind.

    • After writing this, I had to have gravy twice in one week I was craving it so much! Go for it!

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