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Biscuits and Real Sausage Gravy

Real biscuits, hot out of the oven.

No one knows exactly where, or who, concocted the first biscuits and gravy. We know where the first mechanical bread slicer was invented, by by Otto Rohwedder in Chillicothe, MO in 1928. The very first cone-shaped ice cream cone was created at the St. Louis Worlds Fair by Ernest Hamwi in 1904. Even the very first popsicle, invented by eleven year old Frank Epperson can be dated to 1905. But plain old “B & G,” as true lovers of the dish call it, can’t be pinned down to a specific beginning.

Some accounts track the dish to the early Colonists who needed a cheap food and something that was definitely not a British food. Others claim the dish comes from the sawmills in the South - thus the name, “sawmill gravy,” where cheap, fast and filling food was a necessity. A little meat, a lot of water and a bit of flour could make a whole skillet full over a campfire. No one knows the dish’s origins, but what is certain is that what was once poor people’s food, is now downright respectable. (Personally I doubt the “Colonial connection” simply because you can’t find the classic biscuits and gravy on the East Coast no matter how hard you try while other foods introduced by the Colonists remain in the region).

Pigs were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1608, but had actually arrived on the continent a full century earlier with the first Spanish explorers. As the Spaniards looked for gold, some of those early hogs went feral in Florida and Georgia and became the early razorback hogs of the South. Because wild hogs were plentiful, and a pest, and domestic hogs became a staple on Southern farms, sausage became a base for a variety of foods, but most especially, sausage gravy. You couldn’t find a meal better than sausage gravy on biscuits to feed a large family and it became a staple of poor food all across the South and into the Midwest.

Biscuits and gravy can vary greatly by region. Head down to into Mississippi and you’ll encounter tomato gravy. It likely shows the influence of the early French in the region before the Louisiana Purchase. It requires approximately 4 tablespoons of bacon drippings, 4 tablespoons of flour, 2 large chopped-up tomatoes and about 2 cups of cold water. Once made, some cooks add crumbled bacon before spreading it over hot buttermilk biscuits. I’ve found it in restaurants as I travel. Like most restaurant gravies today, it has been cheapened and made from canned tomato soup with a little seasoning and is downright disgusting unless you grew up with it.

If you head down south into Arkansas, into Mississippi and northern Louisiana, you’ll encounter a completely different gravy served on biscuits - chocolate gravy. This is a truly Southern dish served as both a breakfast meal or sometimes served as a dessert in the evening. Chocolate gravy is made with 3/4 cup sugar, 3 tablespoons of flour, 1 level teaspoon of cocoa and a cup and a half of water. Once that’s boiled together and thickened, a touch of vanilla is added. It’s typically served over lavishly-buttered buttermilk biscuits.

The traditional red-eye gravy was born in the 1840s on a battlefield. A drunken, hung-over cook for General Andrew Jackson, poured hot coffee into ham juices and brownings from frying the ham and served it up on biscuits without having added flour to thicken it. Soon cooks all across the South were cooking up "The General's red-eye gravy."

Over in Southern Indiana, on down into Kentucky and Tennessee, you’ll find a completely different version of gravy on biscuits. It’s known as egg gravy, which is made by scrambling eggs in a skillet with bacon grease, adding flour and milk and then cooking to thicken. Meat and other ingredients are also sometimes added. If your gravy always has lumps, scrambled eggs is a good way to cover up the lumps!

The “real” gravy most of us in the Ozarks know and love is just plain sausage gravy. It’s simple, cheap and easy to make, yet this satisfying concoction has become almost impossible to find in restaurants. What you’ll find instead, is factory-made gravy out of a can. Wholesale restaurant suppliers deliver cases of gallon-sized cans of fake sausage gravy and all the “chef” has to do is to open the can, pour it into a pot and heat it. I can’t prove it, but I firmly believe that canned gravy is made from the worn-out grease from french fry deep fryers. If you read the list of ingredients on the can, you won’t find sausage listed anywhere, although some cans list, “artificial flavorings.” 

The even newer product that has replaced canned “sausage” gravy, is instant gravy. It comes in a pouch, you pour in some hot water and shake it up and you’ve got something called gravy. Hardees, Popeye and Shoneys, all use instant gravies. What was once a cheap, easy and filling staple, is now, even cheaper and easier but barely resembles the real thing. There must be an awful lot of people who wouldn’t agree with me, since the public keeps eating the artificial gravies in restaurants and evidently don’t complain.

You have to be careful in restaurants when you get away from the Ozarks. If you order biscuits and gravy in Kansas or beyond, or up north in Minnesota and Michigan, or Ohio eastward (if you can even find the dish served in those areas) you’re likely to be served brown gravy, made from canned, artificially-flavored beef stock. Beware when ordering chicken-fried steak, as well, you’ll likely be given fake brown gravy on top of that, too. That’s always a disappointment, so be sure to ask the wait person what kind of gravy you’ll be served. If they give you a blank stare and say what other kinds of gravy are there, order something else on the menu.
Real, old-fashioned sausage gravy.

There are regional variations of the classic sausage gravy, with some folks adding onions, others adding a dash of cayenne pepper, others swearing fresh-cracked black pepper, or crushed red pepper is the only way to fix the gravy, but over all, the recipe for the real thing remains the same as it has for centuries.

1 pound sausage (mild or hot)
3 tablespoons flour
Salt and lots of black pepper
2 to 3 cups milk

Crumble the raw sausage in a hot cast iron frying pan. Fry the sausage until there is no pink left. Add flour 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring quickly until a paste forms. Then add milk, 1 cup at a time. Stir briskly and cook the mixture until it thickens. Then pour it over fresh-baked buttermilk biscuits, split in half, buttered or not.

Drop biscuits or rolled, your choice!
 And the biscuits? You can buy those canned, frozen, instant or bakery-made but the old-fashioned biscuit is as follows:

2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons lard or other shortening
1 cup buttermilk, chilled

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
In a mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. With your fingertips, rub butter and shortening into dry ingredients until mixture looks like crumbs. Pour in the chilled buttermilk and stir to mix. Turn dough onto floured surface, dust with flour and fold dough over on itself 4 or 5 times. Roll out with a rolling pin or quart fruit jar until the dough is about an inch thick. Cut out biscuits with 2-inch cutter and place biscuits on a baking sheet so the biscuits are just touching. Bake until golden and fluffy, about 15-20 minutes.

Make the gravy while the biscuits are baking. This isn’t health food, but it certainly is a satisfying breakfast! Add some eggs and bacon and a few cups of coffee and you are tasting a real Ozarks tradition.

A breakfast that has a long and proud tradition.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! Sounds delicious. I stumbled upon your column/blog trying to find the earliest grease, milk, flour gravy and biscuits was made in this country. It wasn't brought over from England; they don't know what it is. Your sausage gravy goes back a long way, also. I'll be dropping by again to see what concoctions you have fixed up.