The first sentence of the seminal work Guide to Southern Trees (Dover: 1962) declares lyrically that “Dixie—steeped in tradition, acclaimed in song, reverenced in verse—is a land of trees”, and so it is, but was much more so at the end of the Civil War, when vast areas of the South were still covered with a forest through which one observer claimed that a squirrel could travel from Virginia to Texas without ever touching the ground. When the nation began rebuilding from its bloody struggle, and on into the early 20th century, it was to the South that it turned for the timber (particularly after the Great North Woods had been cut), and logging camps and mills sprang up like mushrooms all over the hills and mountains of the South. The Southern woodlands kept its people in food and clothing during the aftermath of the calamity.
It wasn’t long after the Civil War that the Great Plains became home to those vast fields of wheat that fed the rapidly-expanding country. Up until the final quarter of the 19th century most of the South, indeed much of the country, depended on corn (maize) as its principal grain, and meal made from corn was the rule rather than the exception in rural households where wheat flour was an expensive commodity. Still, flour was obtainable, and American kitchens of every strata of society produced a wide variety of wheat-based breads and other foods. But in the South, largely because of its isolation and overwhelming poverty, wheat flour was for the most part alien to kitchens unless they were in urban enclaves or upper-income homes, and such kitchens were rarely found in the backwoods lumbering camps of the upper South, meaning those parts of the region where primeval woods still stretched over mountains and hills, for there growing wheat on any ample scale was impossible, but corn was grown abundantly as a meal grain, food for stock and a starch vegetable, most notably for hominy and of course grits, which I still hear some people call “hominy grits”.
To English-speaking peoples, gravy is a sauce made from the thickened and seasoned juices of cooked meat. Fair enough, right? The word is rooted in the Latin granum (grain), which in the Old World meant for the most part wheat, but in the South, corn was the staple grain until the late19th century. So putting two and two together (are you with me so far?), let’s assume that what the old folks called “thick’nin’ gavy” (as opposed to red-eye) in frontier lumber camps was made from corn meal, in which case it must have resembled not so much gravy as polenta and had the consistency of grits, albeit creamy grits, since milk became a steadfast ingredient in sawmill gravy as it’s known now. I have seen people put grits on a biscuit, yes I have. I’ve also seen people put ketchup on scrambled eggs, and I once saw a beautiful woman with a dreadful Midwestern accent dressed in a smart business suit douse a slice of good Kentucky ham with Worcestershire sauce (when she asked me what I was staring at, I told her I was admiring her tie). If you want to brave a venture into what Garden& Gun’s latest publication The Southerner’s Cookbook calls “True Sawmill Gravy” (p. 79), you go right ahead, but I’ll not be responsible for the consequences. It might be wise to have a back-up version made with good Martha White flour readily available in case someone spits it out, looks down their nose at you and asks for another biscuit.
In a former life, I worked in a restaurant in Tupelo, Mississippi, where they hold a furniture market every February. It’s a huge event, attracting manufacturers from all over the Mid-South. One year, our restaurant had a breakfast for the truck drivers, who had driven to town the day before delivering the tons of couches, tables, chairs and other accoutrements for display. This breakfast was sponsored by the market management, and we had about fifty or sixty drivers there to chew the fat and gulp down a buffet of scrambled eggs, ham, sausage and bacon, biscuits, grits and gravy. The cook in charge of the occasion left soon afterwards, right before I came in to prep for the night (it was a heavy week). It wasn’t ten minutes later that the owner came in with a steam table pan full of his gravy, which looked like melted vanilla milk shakes, plopped it down on the counter in front of me and said, “They hate this. Fix it. NOW!” and then walked out.” (She was, and still is from what I understand, a real pill; my paychecks bounced on more than one occasion.) So I made my version of sawmill gravy. She took it up and it got a solid round of approval from the drivers upstairs. Later she came in and said, “Well, I guess you’re my go-to guy for breakfast from now on.” I just glared at her and said, “I hate the hell out of that.”
North Mississippi Sawmill Gravy
This recipe will give you a flavorful gravy that is light-years better than that library paste you’re used to being served on breakfast buffets or in fast-food restaurants. Purists will decry my addition of a light stock to the mixture, but if they prefer a gloopy sausage-flavored white sauce, that’s because they just don’t know any better. I’m a firm believer that starch needs unfettered water in order to bloom properly. Cut the ends off a one pound roll of pork sausage (I use Tennessee Pride), about four ounces. This will give you enough meat for your gravy, and these don’t make pretty patties anyway. Brown these in a skillet with about two tablespoons oil (you can use bacon drippings if you like) and break them up very well as they cook. When they’re quite done, sprinkle in about two tablespoons plain flour and mix well into a smooth roux. Once the flour is just beginning to brown (you want it cooked, but with as little color as possible) stir in about one cup of light stock, chicken or vegetable, whichever you prefer. You can use just water, but you’re going to get a better flavor with stock. Stir rapidly to avoid lumping. To this add about two cups milk, reduce heat and let the gravy cook down to a good consistency, perhaps a little thinner than you want, since it will thicken a bit after taken from the heat, and season to taste with salt and black pepper. I like plenty of black pepper in mine.