Pass the Gravy: Eyes Wide Open

Photo (and gravy) by Sheri Castle.
Photo (and gravy) by Sheri Castle.

For the past 5 weeks, Sheri Castle has blogged about gravy for the SFA. It’s a topic close to our hearts; so much so that Gravy is the name of our quarterly journal. First, Sheri gave us the skinny on tomato gravy. Then, she prepared us for Thanksgiving by breaking down turkey gravy. Next, she brought us Appalachian cornmeal gravy. Last week, she tackled the sweet, yet divisive, chocolate gravy. This week, Sheri wraps up her Pass the Gravy series with a kicked-up take on red-eye gravy.

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If we were to describe red-eye gravy to people from another culture, they would think we were joking. It’s made from country ham dregs and strong black coffee, two woebegone and seemingly incompatible leftovers that somehow form an iconic Southern condiment.

When so few ingredients are called into service, there should be a clear path from skillet to plate. Not true. Practitioners of red-eye gravy agree on very little. One man’s rule is another man’s exception. To wit:

  • Red eye gravy is always made with country ham. No, in Louisiana, red-eye gravy is usually made with roast beef.
  • Red-eye gravy is always made with strong coffee. No, again we turn to Louisiana, where chicory is popular. Some upstarts use Coke instead of coffee. Purists contend that red-eye made from a righteous and proper country ham needs only water because anything else would be a distraction.
  • Red-eye gravy is never thickened. Never say never. Some cooks add a tad of cornstarch or flour to give the broth-like gravy some body.
  • Red-eye gravy isn’t seasoned beyond what the salty ham contributes. Not necessarily. Some cooks balance the salt with a little sweet and/or heat.
  • Red-eye gravy is served with biscuits. Yes, a bowl of gravy goes on the table so that eaters can spoon it to their liking over a plate of biscuits and ham and maybe eggs. Or, yes, but the cut sides of split biscuits are only lightly dipped in a little gravy to grease the skids before tucking in slices of ham and perhaps a spoonful of jelly. Or, no way. Red eye gravy goes on grits.

Where did red-eye gravy get its name? Some say it was a rejoinder from Andrew Jackson in response to the bloodshot eyes of his hungover cook. Others say the dot of grease in a bowl of naturally red country ham juice looks like an eye.

We’ll never know the who, where, or why of the first pan of red-eye gravy, but I have a theory. I don’t think that cook set out to make gravy. Instead, I think he or she was simply trying to clean out a skillet after breakfast one morning. Fried country ham leaves behind quite a bit of sticky, salty, tasty residue. Dragging a biscuit through that good stuff would rip it up, leaving a tattered trail like white lint on black pants. However, good cooks know that deglazing a skillet liberates those enjoyable dried bits. What liquid might be sitting around after breakfast? Coffee. Waste not, want not.

In Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, the late John Egerton had this to say about red-eye gravy: “The cookbooks are strangely muted on this divine elixir; it is only the fortunate consumers of it who wax eloquent.”

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Red-Eyes-Wide-Open Gravy

This is a slightly spruced up and yet credible version of red-eye gravy. When made with excellent, salt-cured, smoked, and aged country ham, it’s a real eye opener.

Makes 4 servings  

4 large slices country ham (about 8 ounces)

3/4 cup espresso

1 to 2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar

Pinch of cayenne or a good shake of hot sauce

  1. Trim most of the fat from the outer edge of the ham slices. Score the strips of trimmed fat to keep it from curling as it cooks.
  2. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the fat and cook until it renders about 2 teaspoons of melted fat, about 3 minutes. If the ham is very lean, make up the difference with a little butter.
  3. Add the ham to the skillet and cook until browned on both sides, turning it over several times, about 10 minutes in all.  Transfer the ham to plates and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm. Discard the rendered pieces of fat.
  4. Increase the heat to high. When the fat sizzles, pour in the espresso. Bring to a boil and scrape up the bits from the bottom of the skillet with a heat-proof spatula. Add the brown sugar and stir until melted. Decrease the heat to medium and let simmer, stirring frequently, until the liquid reduces to about 1/2 cup or to your personal preference, 5 to 15 minutes.
  5. Season with cayenne and serve piping hot. Tepid red-eye gravy is awful.