I am a gravy whisperer from Appalachia. Gather round to hear me tell of something with the power to make your life—and biscuits—richer, fuller, and more delicious. I say to you, chocolate gravy. Mountain people who were born into the realm of chocolate gravy or were converted after the age of accountability love it. People from off might be confused and skeptical, so let’s parse the concept a word at a time. Gravy: Not all are made from meat drippings. The term comes from an old southern practice of using the word "gravy" to describe any roux-thickened sauce made in a skillet, whether sweet or savory. Chocolate: This sweet gravy—what some call soppin’ chocolate—delivers a solid, sincere cocoa experience.
To appreciate the wonders of chocolate gravy, one must first appreciate the alchemy of all gravy. Gravy makers can stretch the sticky leavings in the bottom of skillet into a hot, rich, delicious meal better able to satisfying a hungry family. A chef can make sauce from the finest ingredients on earth. Meh. A cook can make gravy out of nothing.
We’ll never know for sure, but the big bang of chocolate gravy was probably somewhere in the Mountain South and spread through the hillbilly diaspora. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America theorizes that chocolate gravy might have been an offshoot of a trading network between Spanish Louisiana and the Tennessee Valley, bringing "Mexican-style breakfast chocolate to the Appalachians." The entry also suggests that it could have been preserved from Spanish colonies on the East Coast in the 16th and 17th centuries by the mixed-race ethnic group known as the Melungeons.
Those historians might be right, but I remain convinced that the first person who made chocolate gravy was a resourceful mama. It is made from simple, shelf-stable groceries available from a country or company store combined with farmstead staples. When sweet treats were few and far between, chocolate gravy was an inexpensive way to turn an ordinary biscuit breakfast into something special.
There are two very different approaches, if not philosophies, to making Appalachian chocolate gravy. One starts with the dry ingredients and relies on butter. The other starts with pan drippings from frying bacon. Straw polls and social media debates reveal that people who cook and eat chocolate gravy are doggedly loyal to one over the other. I openly admit that I am a devotee of the first approach, but try to be open-minded to the latter. Chocolate gravy seeks to soothe nerves, not fray them.
I often serve chocolate gravy when I want to share a taste of my beloved mountains. The food of the Appalachian Mountain South is to the rest of Southern cuisine what bourbon is to whiskey: It is part of the whole, yet distinguishable from the rest.
Some say that Appalachian food is having a renaissance, or at least its 15 minutes. We Appalachian food historians and contemporary practitioners prefer to say that outsiders are finally noticing us and catching on. We want to share our food, but also protect and honor it. We want to use our Appalachian voices, skills, heritage, and passion to share the authentic version of our cooking and tell our own stories. Authentic is a fraught word, but I don’t know of a single Appalachian cook or chef who doesn’t want to make sure that the food called Appalachian remains recognizable, satisfying, and worthy of the people who love our land and cherish our place in it. The food cannot only be made in Appalachia; it must be of Appalachia.
Our Appalachian cuisine—and we certainly do have one—is simple and straightforward, yet complex and nuanced, and therein lies its genius and deliciousness. Mastery of simple things is no simple matter.
All right then. Now, let the Gravy Whisper fix you a plate.
Cook’s note: This time of year I often add fresh strawberries to a plate of chocolate gravy and biscuits. It's my contribution to the world of strawberry shortcake.
- Yields: Make 4-6 servings
Sift together the cocoa, sugar, flour, and salt into a large skillet.
Whisking continuously, add the warm milk in a slow, steady stream and whisk until smooth.
Cook over medium heat, stirring continuously with a heatproof spatula until the gravy thickly coats it, about 8 minutes.
Remove the skillet from the heat, add the butter, and stir until melted.
To serve: Split the hot biscuits in half and divide among serving plates. Top with warm gravy and serve straightaway.