Tomato Gravy: A Questionable Past

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I wrote up a story about tomato gravy for the ole ABH two weeks ago, and sent out feelers for the dish's history to food writing friends in the reporting process, but didn't hear enough back before press time. I'll post the info I did get about tomato gravy in a later post, but here's what I came up with:

If you travel by car at any length, with any regularity, the poor state of the nation’s road food is front and center, and hopefully in your rearview mirror. Granted, there are highway gems, especially when the trusty Honda treats Interstates like a scourge.

But when pressed for time, and bothered by a screaming toddler in the backseat, I, at least, am too often persuaded to follow those four-lane, chain-restaurant-laden routes.

Which is why a nondescript diner attached to a Flying J-style gas station at the Poarch Creek Indian Reservation exit off of I-85 in Alabama was marvelous and refreshing. For starters, the diner served what it called Indian tacos - ground beef and accompaniments served on a fried flat bread. And, for some reason, this diner pushed tomato gravy for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Topping biscuits or rice, tomato gravy was a daily special there, and it provided a bright spot on long strip of quick-slung burgers.

As I hail from Atlantic Canada, a land that can’t really grow tomatoes without great technical assistance, tomato gravy seems quite innovative. But while most Southern friends hold fond memories of it, few know much about it.

I asked Athens cookbook author Rebecca Lang, who included a tomato gravy recipe in her book “Around the Southern Table,” but she knew little of the dish’s origin, though it was a staple in her south Georgia childhood. My Alabama-born wife also grew up eating tomato gravy. Despite its prevalence in some folks’ dusty recesses, it’s not too common of a restaurant item. So what is tomato gravy?

If you are Craig Claiborne, the Mississippi-born legend of the New York Times food section, gravies always top meat, and always include it. Sauces don’t have to do either, and regularly don’t. Tomato gravy, according to Claiborne's rules, isn't a gravy.

In New Orleans, what we would call a pretty basic pasta sauce gets called tomato gravy, a New World iteration of Italian immigrant heritage, and it’s nothing like what we’re discussing here.

What we’re talking about tops biscuits, mostly, and rice and sometimes fried chicken. To me, there's no debate: it's a gravy.

And like most gravies, this decidedly Southern recipe was designed to stretch ingredients and fill bellies, but I did find references to tomato gravy being promoted by early 20th century nutrition advocates as a healthy meat alternative.

Tomato gravy as I now know it, and how Rebecca Lang has known it, is said to be most prevalent in Appalachia, according to the Southern Foodways Alliance’s “Community Cookbook,” a 2010 tome to frugal cookery written by the University of Mississippi-housed keepers of Southern foodways. One historian’s comb through historic homespun recipe collections found little reference to milk or cream used in tomato gravies, which works because I don’t often cook with milk, and the search turned up no recipes designed to top biscuits. Yet there tomato gravy was at the Poarch reservation, topping biscuits. Perhaps it’s not worth questioning a good thing any further.

Anyway, there’s a glut of tomatoes in our backyards, roadside stands and farmers market, so let’s slog through summer’s bounty.

The following tomato gravy recipe is a light riff on Lang’s. It’s vegetarian. I substitute butter for bacon drippings, left out the milk, but definitely kept the dried thyme. In place of biscuits, I went deep South and cooked up a small portion of Carolina Gold Rice grown by Anson Mills, an heirloom variety grown in South Carolina by early colonists. You do what you want.

Find the recipe here.

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