GRAVY. The term "gravy" first appears in Middle English as gravé and is presumed to derive from French, since the word may be found in numerous medieval French cookbooks. The original medieval meaning was precise: the gravé consisted of the natural cooking juices that flowed from roasting meat. By implication, this meat was spit-roasted, and therefore two important implements were required to make and collect the gravy: a flesh fork for piercing the meat in order to increase the flow of drippings, and a dripping pan beneath the roast, designed to collect the gravy for use at table. Normally the gravy was skimmed of fat, salted, and then sent up as a sauce, although presalting was not necessary, since this could be accomplished to taste at table. The term in this sense has been replaced today by jus, as in beefsteak au jus.
The medieval roasted meat with gravé was generally served rare and not likely to have a counterpart in contemporary Byzantine cookery, since the Eastern Church forbade the consumption of blood or bloody food. Among Byzantine Christians, the gravy of pork, mutton, goat, and the mouflon of Cyprus (a species of wild goat prepared like venison) was often reduced over high heat and mixed with garum (fish sauce) or wine, as reported by several medieval travelers. The preparation was then served as a dipping sauce, since the meat was cut up into small pieces and eaten with a fork. The idea of treating gravy as a sauce base is extremely old and may in fact trace back to antiquity. The debate among purists as to whether gravy with additional ingredients constitutes a sauce has not been settled, and probably never will be.
With the revival of sauce cookery in seventeenth-century France, gravy underwent numerous sophistications with the addition of herbs, wine, and other highly flavored ingredients. The English custom of boiling mint or calendula blossoms with clear mutton gravy dates from this same period and was brought to colonial America. The most common addition to gravy, however, was drawn butter, which remained popular into the nineteenth century.
In his Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary (London, 1726), John Nott used the term "gravy" in several senses, including the meat stock or bouillon known as a "restaurant," or restorative. His recipe for Gravy Broth (served as a soup course) is typical of the period in its blurring of the distinctions between gravy, soup, and sauce:
Take a fleshy Piece of Beef, not fat, spit it and roast it; and, when it begins to roast, slash it with a Knife to make the Gravy run out, and keep it continually basting with what comes from it, mix'd with Claret; cut it often, and baste it 'till all the Gravy be come out, put this Gravy into a Sauce-pan over a few Coals; put some Salt, whole Spice, and Lemon-peel, and let it simmer: Put some Sippets in a Dish, pour in your Gravy, garnish your Dish with Oranges and Lemons, and serve it up.
Sippets were small triangular pieces of toasted bread, and the orange and lemon slices were placed around the rim of the dish. The whole spices and lemon peel were strained out before the gravy broth was poured over the bread. The use of spices, vegetables, and other ingredients to heighten the flavor of gravy became common in English household cookery by the Victorian period. For example, in Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery (Philadelphia, 1848) adapted for the American market, there are fifteen recipes for gravy, most of them somewhat complex and more typical of what might be found in an urban rather than rural household.
In rural cookery of this period, it became common practice both in England and America to add flour or roux (cooked flour and fat) to gravy in order to thicken it. This was especially common for dishes served at breakfast or supper. Some period writers considered this an adulteration, while others treated it as an economical and practical way to extend the pan drippings. The Gravy for Chops, which appeared in Cookery as It Should Be (Philadelphia, 1855) is typical and resembles the type of gravy most Americans associate with the Victorian era:
Take out your chops when cooked; keep a large spoonful of fat in which they were cooked, in the pan; dredge in as much flour as will make it a paste; rub this well together over the fire, until a light brown; then pour in as much boiling water as will reduce it to the thickness of cream, and add a tablespoonful of mushroom catsup and a little salt; let this simmer five minutes, and pour it through a sieve over the steak.
This type of quickly made gravy became popular in the United States as a fast food, especially after the Civil War, once iron cookstoves became a standard kitchen fixture. Milk was also commonly added to create a genre of white gravies as opposed to the common brown ones of the past. Chicken gravy over waffles, hashed beef gravy over fried potatoes, red bean gravy on ham, fried tomato gravy—the list of preparations is long with many, many regional variations. Easy to make, they became popular adjuncts to camp cookery and dishes prepared by men in hunting lodges, boat outings, and other outdoor activities.
The demand for convenience soon led to the development of commercial products imitating the homemade preparations. Thus we find prethickened gravies sold in cans, jars, and even in powder form to be reconstituted with boiling water. In America, the term has came to signify any kind of homemade sauce, from the giblet gravy served with turkey at Thanksgiving, to tomato sauce made by Italian Americans for pasta. In this sense, the word "gravy" has been employed in advertising to imply that the commercial product tastes homemade. But one feature has never changed. Real homemade gravies always contain the essential juices of the thing being cooked, whether pan drippings from a pork chop or the juice that runs out of a tomato.
See also Restaurants; Sauces; Soup.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Flandrin, J. L. "Brouets, potages, et bouillons." Médiévales 5 (November 1983): 5–14.
Weaver, William Woys. America Eats: Forms of Edible Folk Art. New York: Museum of American Folk Art: Perennial Library, 1989.
Weaver, William Woys. "White Gravies in American Popular Diet." In Food in Change: Eating Habits from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, edited by Alexander Fenton and Eszter Kisbán. Edinburgh: J. Donald Publishers, 1986: 41–52.
William Woys Weaver
Slice firm, ripe tomatoes; roll in flour and fry in equal parts of lard and butter until brown on both sides. Remove several slices to a platter, stir those remaining with flour and small lumps of butter: then thicken with milk and season to taste. Sop with bread or toast.
FROM: C. Mac Sheridan, The Stag Cook Book: Written for Men by Men (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1922), 95.
gra·vy / ˈgrāvē/ • n. (pl. -vies) 1. the fat and juices exuding from meat during cooking. ∎ a sauce made from these juices together with stock and other ingredients.2. inf. unearned or unexpected money.