Red Eye Gravy or “Poor-man’s Gravy.” It’s a term, to me, that is a complete misnomer. It shines a negative light on a food tradition that is uniquely southern, and exceptionally positive in nature. I submit this, to you the reader. In a world where we revere French cuisine. Especially, as of late, the “humble working-man’s faire” attributed to the modern revival of French haute. So why do we hold with such reverence a style of cooking that stems from the lowest caste of French society, while insulting the simple goodness of another? Why is it that roasting beef bones for marrow, or tourneing vegetables is considered “humble working-man’s faire,” but using the “leftovers” of a southern breakfast to make something wonderful is characterized as something only a poor man would do.
Maybe it’s how we’ve become a society fascinated by cuisine… everywhere but here. We are amazed at someones ability to take scrap, bones and varietal cuts of meat and make amazing dishes (as long as they live somewhere else.) So while the rest of the world turns their eyes somewhere else, to experience the “something from nothing” cooking that is so popular as of late, what do southerners do at the mention of “Poor-man’s gravy?”
They absolutely flip out over it.
Take my advice, if you ever make this stuff, keep your hands away from the inside of the bowl when placing it on a table (especially if your family/friends/guests are already seated.) Not for sanitary reasons, but because you might lose the offending digit in the scramble. Southerners fall on Red-eye gravy like ravenous vultures, dipping, spooning, pouring and sopping. A veritable feeding frenzy at the breakfast table.
For the displaced southerner, It can be especially helpful for finding the uninitiated amongst a group of people, like an inside joke or a secret society. It’s the same scenario every time around. A bowl of the dark, greasy, viscous liquid is placed on a table and looks of confusion and repugnance wave of the faces of those oblivious to it’s charms. But for those who know, pure elation. Their eyes light up, their heart starts racing, and their face becomes awash in notions of reminiscence and unctuous pleasure.
Rightfully so, I might add. That “dark, greasy, viscous liquid” I mentioned earlier, is an explosion of simple flavors bound in a complex way (a metaphor for southern cooking?) The recipe, which I’ve wit held until now for purposes of drama and storytelling, is a prime example of making something amazing from scrap:
Country ham drippings and black coffee.
Yes, that’s all.
Though some may turn their nose up at the notion of gravy tasting like salty pork fat, bitter coffee and acidic undertones, the actual product is a complex and wonderful marriage of flavors.
In a cast iron skillet, or heavy bottomed non-stick skillet, brown a few slices of thick Country Ham (or any salt cured ham) reserving as much of the drippings in the pan as possible.
Remove the ham slices and place on a serving dish to hold until later.
Drain the pan juices into a serving bowl, and cover them to keep warm. Do not attempt to scrape the pan, we’ll need those bits in the next step.
Deglaze the pan with just enough coffee to fill the bottom and give room to scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. (Usually 8-12oz.)
Simmer for one to two minutes, or until the coffee comes to temperature.
Remove the cover on the bowl of reserved drippings, and pour your coffee mixture into the bowl.
Don’t be afraid of the fact that the mixture stays separated, it’s supposed to (that’s where the “eye” in the name comes from.)