Red-Eye Gravy - Gastro Obscura

Ingredients & Condiments

Red-Eye Gravy

Once described as a “divine elixir,” this Southern sauce typically gets its spunk from coffee.

The word sopped rarely sounds appealing. But when it’s perched beside the words biscuit and red-eye gravy, magic happens. Perhaps that’s why so many Southerners choose to eat their biscuits sopped, or dipped, in this reddish condiment made from country ham drippings and strong black coffee.

There are many theories on the name’s origin, and the term “red-eye gravy” is likely not related to its caffeinated character. One legend features President Andrew Jackson reprimanding his hung-over cook by asking for a country ham with gravy as red as his eyes. More likely is that the name refers to the gravy’s preparation and presentation. After pan-frying a country ham, cooks deglaze their skillets using strong coffee. The resulting mixture, which molecularly mimics oil and water, separates once poured into a bowl. As the liquids settle, the dark coffee forms a “pupil” that the ham juice surrounds like a red, glassy cornea. Add in some chile, and you’ve got an even fiercer-looking red eye.

As with most culinary crafts, Southerners serve up their ham and red-eye gravy several ways, sometimes thickened with flour or mixed with mustard and ketchup. Described by one writer as a “divine elixir,” it’s not the healthiest condiment out there, but when you’re served a slab of country ham on a biscuit the size of a cat’s head, it seems only proper to give it the topping it deserves.

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