By Jessica Turner, September 11, 2017
I bet many of our readers don’t know this, but the second week of September is designated as National Biscuits and Gravy Week.
Now, in the south, biscuits and gravy are a home-cooked delight worth celebrating. In my family, the tradition of gravy making has been passed down from mother to daughter, and earlier this year on Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time, I talked about my Grandma’s gravy recipe during the “Heirloom Recipe” segment – a storytelling part of the show when a favorite recipe reflecting Appalachian and southern food culture is shared with our radio listeners and live audience. And so we thought we’d dish out that recipe here to mark this special culinary week.
But this is not just a recipe for gravy; it is also a story about inadequacy because one of the things that serves as a reminder of my inadequacies is my Grandma’s gravy. Of course, I’m talking about sausage gravy – that magic breakfast potion of the south that, spooned on biscuits, the rest of the world wrinkles their noses at as a soggy mess. But to a lot of people in the south, and definitely to me, it is a favorite food.
I’m not talking about the powdered gravy with big, fake black pepper flakes, but real, made-from-scratch gravy. Sadly, try as I might, however, mine never tastes as good as my Grandma’s. My Grandma is in her 90s, still living with my Grandpa on the farm where they raised their four children. They have been married 71 years. Up until a few years ago, she made gravy every morning except Sundays when she got ready for church and knew a big Sunday dinner was on the horizon later that day. I grew up eating gravy at her house, before catching the school bus, or on stints home from college – basically any time I could get it.
Now, I’ve tried to make Grandma’s gravy with varying degrees of success, and it’s never been outstanding. What could be so hard about such a simple recipe: sausage, flour, milk, salt, pepper. Some people may get fancy and add other things, but this is not necessary. You fry up slices from a tube of Tennessee Pride of Jimmie Dean sausage (I recommend the “hot” variety) and remove them from your skillet. To that hot grease, you add one heaping tablespoon of flour for every cup of milk. Stir that to cook it until it’s very brown – roux they call that in some places. Then you add your milk. Some folks like to use cream, but my Grandma uses what she has on hand.
It doesn’t have to be fancy to be the best thing you ever had. “It’s that simple,” she says. My question: How can something that simple be so difficult? The tricks are in the details. Salt and pepper? “Yes,” she says. “Plenty.” And she likes to add it to the flour and stir that up really good. And the sausage really matters. You have to brown it well, almost burn it, so that you have a lot of flavor in the grease.
I shared this recipe with our Farm and Fun Time listeners, and now our blog readers, but good luck getting close! I follow the steps my Grandma laid out, and my gravy turns out…serviceable. There’s an unspoken science to gravy that southerners do not discuss. Like lumps, and how to get those lumps out of your gravy. I admit that sometimes I privately run my gravy through a sieve to get out the lumps. I’m not sure if my Grandma has ever had to do that; I’ve never asked, because I’m too polite. Maybe I just need more practice. I can’t imagine making gravy for my husband every day for nearly 70 years. Even if I started right now, I could never catch up to her.
There’s a lot to live up to when you come from a bunch of strong women, and Grandma’s gravy could be a metaphor for anything, although there really isn’t anything better than that. My own kids like my gravy just fine, but they really prefer my mom’s, their Mamaw’s gravy. Sometimes I tell them “Mamaw cooked the sausage and I just added the milk.” Sometimes that’s true. If I’m lucky, someday I’ll be making my own version worthy to be called Grandma’s Gravy for little people who think it’s the best thing in the world.
And if you need inspiration as you get ready to try this recipe, have a listen to the original gravy jingle that was performed by house band Bill and the Belles after my “Heirloom Recipe” segment at the Farm and Fun Time show:
That covers the gravy, but what about the biscuits? They, of course, are equally important to make this dish just right. Twenty years ago as a graduate student at Indiana, I was homesick for my family and good southern cooking (Indiana has a great food culture, but I missed the foods of my Appalachian home). I tried making biscuits several times, and they turned out flat, stale, just not good. And so, once again, I turned to the expert: my Grandma.
She listened patiently to my problem and gave her assessment confidently: “Are you using While Lily Flour?” I said no, because my grocer in southern Indiana didn’t carry that brand. “You need White Lily flour,” she said. A couple of weeks later a package arrived: a five-pound bag of White Lily Self-Rising Flour. I was skeptical, but I tried it with the same biscuit recipe. And she was right. White Lily Flour made good biscuits.
Since then I’ve learned that the type of flour really matters in a dish, and flours grown in different regions are different in their chemical makeup and in their milling. Having later lived in China and made dumplings there with Chinese flours, and then coming back to the U.S. where I struggle to replicate that consistency here, I have seen how flours make a difference.
Here’s the recipe from the White Lily Flour Company using their self-rising flour. It’s a simple recipe that is nearly identical to how my Grandma makes it – though it is worth noting that my Grandma doesn’t use a recipe for her biscuits, because once you’ve made thousands of biscuits you get a feel for the proportions of the ingredients. You can also use all-purpose flour and add your own leavening.
If your mouth is now watering, I urge you to celebrate National Biscuits and Gravy week with a plate of your very own. Feel free to take my Grandma’s recipes and make them your own family tradition!
Jessica Turner is the Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.