If there’s one condiment Southerners treat with great respect, it’s gravy. So much so that the Southern Foodways Alliance named its quarterly journal after the savory dressing. For the next four weeks, Sheri Castle, author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook, will share her favorite gravy recipes in the SFA series Inside the Boat.
If you want to know how to make a tasty and filling meal out of very little, ask a hungry country cook of modest means. As evidence I offer cornmeal gravy, a delicious solution invented by Native Americans and adopted by the self-reliant farm people of the Mountain South. Cornmeal gravy is about as close to nothing as you can get and still have something good to eat.
The three requirements for any good gravy are fat, thickener, and liquid. For cornmeal gravy, the fat comes from frying a sliver of delicious cured pork, such as bacon, streaky side meat, or the trimmings from a ham. When there is not even a scrap of meat to fry, a spoonful of bacon grease left over from better days works fine.
As the name implies, cornmeal gravy is thickened with cornmeal instead of expensive store-bought wheat flour, used because the flour sack and wallets were empty or because homegrown cornmeal was all one ever had in the first place.
Cornmeal gravy is finished with milk, usually fresh sweet milk, although some cooks prefer buttermilk. Most farm families kept a milk cow, so they had a reasonably reliable supply of nourishing dairy products. Truly destitute people used only water, creating a version of cornmeal gravy called “poor-do”.
A spoonful of grease. A handful of cornmeal. A half-empty bottle of milk. These three ingredients can be plenty in good times and paltry when that’s all there is. When we eat cornmeal gravy out of nostalgia or curiosity rather than because we are barely making do, we appreciate just how good it can taste.
Cornmeal gravy accompanies and extends equally modest food, often cornbread or fry bread. It is delicious spooned over vegetables hot from a skillet and redolent with onions or ramps, such as potatoes, cabbage, greens, tomatoes, or squash. It is occasionally served with country-style steak or fried chicken, but if there is enough meat to fry for a meal, the cook probably isn’t looking to cornmeal gravy.
In short, cornmeal gravy is elemental poor-people food, born of necessity and made from ingredients that folks could raise instead of buy. They now seem luxurious: a tiny bit of delicious fat from home-cured pastured pork, whole-grain stoneground cornmeal, and fresh raw milk or hand-churned buttermilk. Served over local vegetables. This humble meal shows that there is often a very fine line between hillbilly and hipster.
Sheri Castle is a food writer, cooking teacher, and author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is fueled by farmers’ market fare, good stories, and excellent bourbon.