I was watching the semi-finals of a children’s cooking competition show this morning, when a small ten-year-old boy began to make gravy for his roast pheasant. I realize that the fact that a ten-year-old can roast a pheasant is the real story, but for me the story is always about the gravy.
I saw him pour the drippings directly into the pan and “Oh No,” escaped my lips, “He can’t…” I whispered.
An older boy nearby stepped over and asked him, “Are you starting with a roux?”
“Yes, a roux, say YES,” I willed him as he up-ended a bag of flour straight into the pan of drippings and the older boy backed slowly away.
“NOOOOOOOO!!” I howled alone in my living room causing the cats to both exit to somewhere quieter. Even they knew this was considered a high crime against the culinary arts to create gravy in this manner.
Growing up my mom made gravy every Sunday to go with our Roast Beef and mashed potatoes. That was Sunday Dinner, a large chunk of meat, a potato dish and a veggie dish. Sometimes the vegetable was green beans and sometimes carrots. I always felt cooked carrots were only edible with gravy – most food is. And if I didn’t want to eat them, I could bury them in the mashed potatoes.
As a child of six my part in the gravy making was a small one. Being eye level with the stove created a safety issue so I was given what tasks I could do that kept me busy and out of trouble. It was my job to shake a baby food jar of flour and water. This was the thickening agent my mother would use–a thoroughly shaken (not stirred) flour and water mixture.
The meat would be removed from the pan and set aside to rest. Amid the drippings of fat and broth, bits of cooked onion, my mother would add water and stir to remove any stuck bits from the bottom of the pan. As she deglazed the pan, and I don’t know that she ever even knew this term for what she was doing to flavor our gravy, I shook the baby food jar. I would shake and shake as I danced around the kitchen.
“Is it enough?” I would ask stopping several times to have her check it before she would finally say, “Yes, now.” The lid would come off and it would be stirred into the simmering base. The color would shift from a dark brown to a light tan as the flour-water was fully incorporated and began to heat.
“It’s bubbling! It’s bubbling!” I would announce indicating that I felt it was nearly done. My mother would stop stirring it with a fork and turn the heat off. I would hunt for a ladle in the drawer of utensils while she got a medium sized bowl out of the cupboard. The gravy boat was for holidays. On everyday Sundays, a bowl was good enough for the gravy.
Only then, once the gravy hit the table, was everyone called in to eat. Inevitably, my father would recall the first Sunday dinner my mother made just after they were married in the late 1950’s. Friends were invited and there was an uncomfortable pause prior to eating.
“Which one is the gravy?” my Uncle Tom had asked. Apparently, it was far from obvious that it was a liquid. Oh dear! No worries, she continued to make Sunday dinners and over the years the gravy improved greatly.
I don’t know what my mother’s method of gravy making was called, but when I was in college, I learned to start gravy from a roux: equal parts butter and flour. I learned to melt a stick of butter (that’s universally a half cup) and then add to it a half cup of flour. This would be blended together with a fork until a thick paste was created. It was a beautiful dark caramel colored paste. Slowly, very slowly broth would be poured into the pan and stirred quickly with a whisk. The whisk made a scraping sound against the bottom of the pan like a whisper. “Stir, stir, stir,” it said.
When my roux-based gravy was complete, it had a silky finish and coated a spoon perfectly (the doneness test). It was not chunky or lumpy and never so solid that it required verbal confirmation to differentiate it from the meat dish. After making it once at home, I became the official family gravy maker and we never saw the baby food jar again.
When I moved out on my own, my first solo Thanksgiving dinner included my roux and the silky result. I was impressed that somehow, I had managed to get each dish to complete at the same time. That my mother could do that always amazed me.
I have never been one to entertain and now, being gluten free, my old friend the flour roux was no longer an option. Being single at the holidays leads to inevitable invitations from well-meaning people to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas with them. Sometimes you get to help with the cooking, sometimes you don’t.
I used to offer to make the gravy but I don’t anymore. One woman saw me using an entire stick of butter and seemed to feel that I was attempting to kill her family with fat. I was unaware how afraid of wonderful things like butter and bacon she was. It’s really very sad.
What was her preferred method of making gravy? With the giant turkey resting on a platter in the middle of the kitchen island among dishes of cranberry jelly and sweet potatoes and stuffing, she opens a cupboard and pulls out a bag of flour. She up-ends it into the pan of drippings and starts to stir the dry powder directly in.
I nearly fainted the first time I saw this. Now my stomach just flip-flops a little as I thank God that I am gluten free and won’t have to eat it. Yes, it clumps. Yes, it lumps. After it bubbles and thickens, but never enough to coat a spoon because that would mean patiently waiting for the flavors to develop and the broth to reduce, she pours the watery liquid through a strainer to captures all the lumps whether flavorful or flour. Into the gravy boat it goes, where it stays until long after the meal is over. That is one thing that is remarkably different from my home growing up. We never had leftover gravy.
The gravy the little boy served to the judges on Top Chef Junior had been allowed to thicken, perhaps a little too much. The camera zoomed in on it being poured from the spout of the gravy boat and it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t pour. It was coaxed out onto the plates and the judges very kindly told him what a nice flavor it had. He went home that episode. He was a lovely, kind, sweet little boy and one day he will learn that all gravy should start as a roux.
Others will never learn.