Gravy—that rich yet humble amalgam of fat, flour, and liquid—may seem like a simple thing. We spoon it over biscuits or grits, drizzle it over our holiday birds, even use it to gild stacks of crispy chicken and waffles. But start talking to folks and you soon realize that in America, gravy means a million different things to a million different people—and just about everybody has a favorite version to call their own. Here’s a primer to some of the best-loved versions still claiming a place on family tables from coast to coast. Read ’em and eat!
This rib-sticking sauce—also known as sawmill gravy because it was a staple in old lumber camps—is a true working man’s gravy: hearty, humble, and a model of economy. Deeply savory, creamy, and spiked with a load of black pepper, it begins with a base of crumbled breakfast sausage that’s browned to a crunch before being enrobed in a silky roux of flour and milk. Spooned over biscuits, still warm, it’s a little slice of heaven.
Red Eye Gravy
Deep, dark, and every bit as eye-opening as its name would suggest, this ham-based gravy is a Southern classic and especially beloved in the country ham heartland of Virginia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. It gets its dark hue from a healthy dose of coffee and brown sugar stirred into the mix—and it is thinner than many other gravies because it usually does not include flour or another thickener in the base. No one is quite sure where it originated, but one popular (and almost certainly apocryphal) tale purports that it was first served to a hungover Andrew Jackson after the general (and future president) asked his cook for ham with “gravy as red as my eyes.”
This maritime twist on gravy is a low country classic and may as well be the official dish of Charleston, South Carolina. Besides super-fresh raw local shrimp, other common components include fatty smoked bacon, roasted peppers, cream, and Worcestershire sauce. A heaping pile of creamy grits is its soul mate.
What’s the only thing better than fried chicken (or chicken-fried anything)? Fried chicken with chicken gravy. This classic American sauce is the natural byproduct of all those glorious drippings left in the skillet. Whisk in some flour and seasonings and a few glugs of cream, and you have all you need to really gild the lily—or some waffles or biscuits!
No, not all gravy is all meat all the time. This fresh version can be traced back to the bountiful summer gardens of the old South and is still a simple, seasonal favorite in many homes when the growing season is in full swing. The particulars may change—cornmeal can swap in for flour as a thickener, or bacon fat may be added to the base instead of butter for a little extra zing—but one essential ingredient remains the same: fat, ripe tomatoes, so juicy they’re nearly bursting at the seams.
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