Notes on Sawmill Gravy

The Harrars’ Guide to Southern Trees (Dover: 1962) lyrically declares that “Dixie—steeped in tradition, acclaimed in song, reverenced in verse—is a land of trees.” When the nation began to recover from its bloody Civil War, and on into the early 20th century, timber became the South’s biggest cash commodity. Logging camps and sawmills sprang up like mangling mushrooms in the great forests stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to Galveston. The deforestation of the southeast was an ecological calamity of continental proportions, but it provided a defeated, dispirited people with the elements of existence and, perhaps, hope itself.

In my homeland of the middle South sawmill gravy is a staple for breakfast. This recipe makes a gracious plenty. Many folks I knew as a boy would keep a covered container of left-over gravy with whatever meats and biscuits weren’t eaten that morning. More often than not someone would spoon it over a piece of cornbread or a scoop of rice sometime during the day, and many nights found another batch being made on the stove.

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.

Brown about a half-pound pork sausage in a little oil (you can use bacon drippings if you like). Break it up very well. When quite done, sprinkle in about two tablespoons plain flour, and blend until smooth. When flour begins to brown, stir in about a cup of water. Mix well. To this add enough milk to make a thin gravy. Reduce heat and cook down to a good consistency, perhaps a little lighter than you want, since it will thicken a bit after taken from the heat. Salt if needed. I like it with a heft of black pepper.

 

Grillades

Rick Louvin is a “chawmer from New-awlens” who puts on more airs than a mountain range. He loves going to little urban supermarkets “to see what the Great Unwashed are consuming” and insists on dragging me to my little neighborhood store for systematic abuse.

Finding the produce aisle nothing more than a compost heap, his withering assessment of the floral department brought a tall bald queen around the corner clicking his nails like a scorpion, so Rick bought a rose and gave it to him in a thankfully effective gesture of reconciliation.

After declaring every can in the store a ptomaine grenade, we hit the meat section. I was jittery because the butcher on duty was my buddy Charlie, who has the build of a Sumo wrestler and the disposition of a lamb. After a sweeping pathological analysis of the meat section as a whole, we came to the discount section where he grabbed a flat pack of cubed steak for two bucks and grinned. Big ole Charlie was right next to him, humming to himself and marking down hamburger. Rick slapped Charlie on the shoulder. “Hey! Is this round steak?” I tried to die three times.

“It surely is,” Charlie said with the most bountiful smile in the known universe. “We’ll tenderize anything you want, just pick it out.”

“Great!” Rick said. “Give me three pounds round. We’re gonna get some stuff in the deli, we’ll be back in a couple of minutes.” Charlie winked at me when we got the meat, and I think he was thanking me for the customer, but I’m not sure. He goes out of his way to cut me t-bones to order, and that’s a certain sign of affection, if you ask me.

Once out of the store, Rick said, “We’re going to make grillades. This is what my gammy uses. She breads it, fries it, makes a roux in that, throws in some garlic and onion, bell pepper and celery, diced tomato, cooks it down in a casserole in the oven, food of the gods and you’re cooking.”

“You never let up on me, Rick. I’m gonna die in your harness.”

“You’re one lucky hoss, Jess.”

 

Chocolate Gravy

Mamaw Onsby lived in a small two-room house set back from ours under a huge white oak with thick knotted roots that gripped the earth like the toes of Antaeus. She had come to live there after her husband of sixty-odd years had died, and she was perfectly content, rarely coming to our house to visit, usually sitting at home listening to the radio and reading her Bible. Daddy tried to put an air conditioner in her window, but she wouldn’t have it. She was a tiny old woman, not much taller than I was at 11 when she died, and like many women of her generation who considered smoking unladylike, Mamaw dipped snuff (Garrett) and would make snuff out of cocoa and sugar for us to dip with twigs from the big black gum tree that grew near the road.

Her home was an early destination for me and her other great-grandchildren because she would make biscuits every morning, big, fat cat-head biscuits that she baked in an antediluvian skillet. Mamaw usually made sawmill gravy to go with the biscuits, but my brother Tom always asked her to make chocolate gravy. She’d look at him and say, “Oh, this thickenin’ gravy ain’t good enough for you, is it?” My brotherTom, little devil he was, would say “NO!” as loud as he could, and Mamaw, with a mumble about him being “just like a damned Onsby” would make chocolate gravy. The rest of us to be polite always had a biscuit with regular gravy, but she made us have another with chocolate “so it won’t be wasted”. It never was.

Heat two cups whole milk with a pat of butter; mix very well three tablespoons cocoa, two tablespoons plain flour, three quarters of a cup of sugar, add to warm milk with a whisk, stirring vigorously to prevent lumping. Heat until gravy thickens. Some people add vanilla to this, but for the life of me, I don’t know why.