The very best food tastes like a place. Close your eyes, open your mouth, and you know exactly where you are—or where the person cooking it comes from. And for all of America's vast and varied bounty of produce, terroir, merrior, and craftsmanship, one of the places where regional differences are most on display is in a humble ladle of gravy.
Gravy may seem like edible excess—which is partly why it's seen as such a quintessential American food—but it's actually the product of scarcity and ingenuity, which is also pretty darned American. Take whatever the season has given you, and make the most of it. All you need is some manner of fat (whatever was left in the pan will do), a thickener, and a liquid, and suddenly that meager meal of rice, beans, cornmeal, or biscuits becomes a minor feast that will get you through the workday.
Brown and giblet gravy, milk gravy, mushroom gravy, and onion gravy are fairly standard fare throughout the United States. (There's also the whole matter of Italian sugos and ragus being called gravy but that's not what we're talking about here.) But there are particular regional tweaks, quirks, and predilections that come into play and turn this country into a glorious rainbow of gravies. Mmmmm… gravy rainbow.
Here are a dozen of the most beloved regional styles in the United States of Gravy.
Chocolate Gravy: Appalachia
Per "gravy whisperer" Sheri Castle: "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." Both come together with flour and cocoa and taste like sweet heaven over a biscuit. Read “Chocolate Gravy Is the Pride of Appalachia”
Cornmeal Gravy: Mississippi Delta and the Mountain South
When you have next to nothing, you still have the makings of gravy. This flour-free sauce can be cobbled together from pan drippings (bacon is ideal), milk or buttermilk, and cornmeal, stirred until softened, like grits. The technique stems from Native American selu'si asusdi, and has kept many a farmer fed throughout a lean season.
Redeye Ham Gravy: The South
This gravy comes with a side of origin myths—the most popular of which is that Andrew Jackson, on a campaign in the 1880s, asked his hungover cook to bring him some country ham with gravy as red as his eyes. True or not, the ham-fat-based gravy is an eye-opener of its own, with a sturdy belt of coffee stirred into the drippings, along with brown sugar. Read “The Best Redeye Gravy Is Made with Leftover Coffee”
Redeye Roast Beef Gravy: Louisiana
The rest of the South can keep their ham to themselves; Cajun-style redeye gravy gets its kick from coffee as well (possibly chicory), but the meat debris is made of roast beef.
Tomato Gravy: New Orleans and Appalachia
Depending on where it's served, this gravy will pick up a different accent. In New Orleans, Creole "red gravy" is roux-based and fortified with trinity (onions, celery, and peppers), but elsewhere—especially in the Mountain South—the formula varies wildly. It may be conjured from the remnants of fried pork or chicken, stirred with flour, onions, and fresh or canned tomatoes. Sometimes those may provide all the moisture needed. In other places there is a preference for water, milk, or broth to extend and thin it.
Sawmill Gravy: The South
The name of this gravy likely came from its popularity in lumber camps where workers needed to make the most of every scrap of food they could muster. The original version was probably made by scraping up stuck-on meat and fat from the bottom of a skillet into a mixture of flour and milk, but modern-day methods simply call for rendering and crumbling breakfast sausage to create the requisite savory heft. This is a biscuit's soulmate.
Shrimp Gravy: Charleston, South Carolina
Shrimp and grits is the quintessential Charleston dish, and there are infinite ways to make it. One of the most popular includes a brown, bacon-backed gravy made with a lashing of Worcestershire sauce, beef stock, and fresh, raw shrimp that are cooked right in. Spooned over a steaming bowl of grits, this is one of the greatest breakfasts a human could rightly expect to enjoy in their lifetime.
Cream Gravy: Texas
People throughout this great nation have long made gravy with whatever is stuck to the bottom of the skillet, but Texas deserves a special citation for their love of cream gravy. It's a simple, perfect meld of leftover fat, flour, milk or cream and—crucially—plenty of black pepper, stirred together over heat until it's sufficiently thick. Spooned lavishly over a chicken-fried steak, it's something akin to heaven in liquid form.
Salt Pork and Milk Gravy: New England
Waste not, want not. The early settlers preserved their precious rations of pork by preserving the fattiest parts in salt. The tradition continues, with admittedly less regularity these days, and results on occasion in a dish made by soaking strips of the pork to remove some of the salt, then rendering them in a pan and making a milk-based gravy with the drippings. Pair it with a biscuit or potatoes and you've got a hearty—if not especially heart-healthy—meal.
Chicken Gravy: South
This gravy is made by whisking milk or cream, flour, and seasonings into the browned bits and drippings left in the pan. It's a special treat served alongside those crisp, golden wings, drumsticks, and thighs.
Hamburger Gravy: Midwest
This is the sawmill gravy's Midwestern cousin, made by browning hamburger meat and onions, then thickening the leftover fat with flour and milk—or getting even meatier with the addition of bouillon and steak sauce. Ladle it over mashed potatoes, noodles, biscuits, or any carb you desire.
Chili Gravy: Texas
This Tex-Mex staple starts with lard or oil, then a roux with made with flour or masa. After that comes the chili powder and warm spices like cumin, paprika, and oregano, along with garlic powder and salt, then it's thinned it out with chicken broth. Ultimate destination: over a pile of cheese-stuffed enchiladas.