It’s All About the Gravy

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.


#cooking #gravy

The Bowls

“Where are mom’s bowls?” I asked.

“What Bowls?” he grunted.

“Her mixing bowls, I don’t see them in the cupboard.”  What bowls, my ass, I thought.

“Oh your brother took those,”  Dad said.  “Can you clear your mom’s things out of the closet?  I want to make more room for my clothes.”

“The Bowls” had become a trigger point since my mother passed. They were as present as any member of the family my entire life and for me, at the end, became the symbol of my place or lack of one in the family.

The Bowls were my mother – how hard she had to work, how creative she was, how she persevered.  Except for the little blue bowl that disappeared while we were on vacation – that one did not persevere. And no one ever owned up to breaking it and hiding the evidence.  It was as mysterious as an alien abduction.  I wanted those bowls. Somewhere inside my raised not to be entitled little heart, I felt I deserved those bowls.  I was her only daughter after all. But I had been raised to not feel I deserved anything.

My mother cooked and baked everything from scratch every day of our lives.  It was rare for her to consider using a mix and when she did, we all agreed whatever the outcome was, it was not as good as what she would have made from scratch. We could tell the difference between a cake made from a box mix and one from scratch by sight. There was no need or desire to taste it.  No pre-made cookie dough ever entered our home.  No frozen dinners or fast food for us.  Except of course for the things considered healthy – Wonder Bread and Campbell’s soups – which I now know weren’t at all healthy.  In doing so, she inadvertently gave us the best start nutritionally as far away from preservatives and processed salt anyone could have hoped for.

Most of her cooking involved “The Bowls”, a set of primary colored Pyrex mixing bowls that she received as a wedding present in 1955.  It is a fairly common set you’ve probably seen if you did not have one in your home. They began to manufacture them in the 1940’s and there are entire websites devoted to them – click here for one called Pyrex Love.  They are in nearly every antique store I’ve ever been in and well-represented on eBay.  You can get a set for between $65 and $100.

They are cheery, bright colored bowls that nested one in the other and were stored high on a shelf in our cupboards where little hands could not reach them for fear of breaking one.  They were a sign of something good to come.  A sign that soon there would be scents wafting through the house signaling a get-together, event, a normal meal or better yet – cookies!

The largest, the yellow bowl, always meant something big was being made, usually a double batch and in a family of seven, everything was likely a double batch.  The best was a double batch of chocolate chip cookies – the Tollhouse recipe from the back of the bag of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate morsels (gee that is a mouthful to say and one to look forward to!).  It was also used for Christmas cookies, pie dough and even at times, something savory, like meatloaf.

The next size down was the green bowl.  It did not get used very much.  Every other bowl had to be dirty before it got selected.  It was like the last kid left standing when getting picked for kickball.  Poor bowl.  It just wasn’t big enough for most things my mother needed to make and too big for others.  It was most often used for mixing icing.  Now that I watch the Great British Baking Show like an obsessed dieter, I understand there are many many types of icings and coatings for cakes.  In our house it was fairly simple.  There was the “hard” white icing and the “soft” white icing and, of course, the chocolate fudge icing.  Both of the white icings were soft but one was a soft meringue (a word my fairly simple mother never used – and I don’t mean simple stupid, I mean simple, plain and clear) The other, more often used, was a sugar packed royal icing made with milk, powdered sugar and a teaspoon of almond flavoring. The almond flavoring was Mom’s signature flavor. It was that little something extra people couldn’t quite put their finger on when they ate her baked goods but they knew it was hers.

Next came the bright red bowl.  I recall it as the smallest bowl (but I hadn’t been told about the missing blue one – much like that uncle that we didn’t talk about).   It usually held something until it was poured into the larger bowl, melting butter and cocoa, for instance.  Melting butter with cocoa in it meant mom was making chocolate fudge icing usually for banana cake.  Mom would put the butter and cocoa in the bowl and set it at the back of the stove while the cake was baking so that it could naturally and slowly soften and melt in the heat that rose off the stove.  This was pre-microwaves. The smell that came from these two basic ingredients was amazing and called out to us like sirens luring sailors to the shore.  And much like a sailor might crash into the rocky coast, we were unable to resist dipping in a finger and were always disappointed.  It was so bitter at this stage without sugar, all you could do was grimace.  How could something that smelled so tantalizingly good, taste so horrid?  And how could we keep trying it in hopes for it to change? There was no enjoyment there except to just keep inhaling and hoping for one of the beaters from the mixer later after the sugar and milk had been added.

It was tough in a house of seven to share two beaters equally.  To be one of the lucky one’s to get to lick a beater or the bowl meant being painfully well behaved during the entire mixing and baking process.

I stood next to my mother doing my best not to be in the way, but to be near enough to get her something, if I could reach it, whenever she was cooking. I learned how to gather everything together before you start so that you aren’t caught off guard by a missing ingredient.  We couldn’t just pop out to get it in those days.  It went on the list and could be a week before the next trip to the grocery store. We did not have much counter space so everything was done on a small area between the sink and stove that was just a bit larger than a checker board.  Really big projects, like Christmas cookies and rolling out pie dough would mean taking over the kitchen table – that multipurpose surface on which homework was done, projects were planned and created, newspapers were read, card games and visitors socialized and meals were taken.

I stood next to my mother and watched.  I watched and learned without really knowing the words, the difference between stirring, mixing, folding, creaming and beating.  She wasn’t explaining what she was doing as she went along, she wasn’t intentionally teaching me. There wasn’t time for that. I stood there and observed and absorbed it.  I knew how to level a measure, noticed the differences in the way the old wooden mixing spoon was held and the speed with which she turned it and when to use a rubber spatula to scrape the bottom.

These were “The Bowls” I have been obsessed with since my mother died.  These were “The Bowls” that before I made it home the day after her death disappeared from that high shelf in the cupboard into the possession of my younger brother. My younger brother?  A boy?  Who made that decision?  How did that come to happen?  I knew it was the wrong time to question it, what with funeral plans being made.  Objects weren’t important.  Objects are just things. But I have allowed objects have haunted me.

I recently got a chance to ask him.  I didn’t need to see him to know he was back-peddling to come up with some answer over the phone. He insisted he did not take them.  That he was given them many months later.  And that they were now no longer three, but two as his second ex-wife had made the poorly thought out decision to cook something on a stove top using one. It was a mixing bowl, not a casserole dish….apparently she hadn’t spent much time at her mother’s side learning anything.  He offered to get the surviving two from his adopted daughters.  I said no, they had a new place now. It was enough for me to finally get to ask out loud, “Did no one think of me?”  and finally learn that no one had.

I have my own set now from an antique store, a full set of four, yellow, green, red and blue.  I cook her recipes and my own in them.  They are no longer “the bowls” they are “my bowls”.