Many family traditions and family recipes begin with a single person. I’m not sure exactly who began the fabulous tomato gravy one, but as far as I can tell it was on the Sealy side of the family.
Mac’s mother was as fantastic a cook as my mother, but coming from different areas of the south their recipes were decidedly different, too. Mac’s mama made a plum cake that was so simple yet so delicious that people requested it by that name, Plum Cake. Basically it was a yellow cake put together with home made plum jelly and topped with the same. Sort of a jelly cake extraordinaire. I’ve made plum jelly but the only Plum Cake I’ve ever tasted was Mama McBride’s. It seemed a sacrilege to make it while she was still living.
She used to talk about her mother making “Shadow Gravy” during the depression. To make it they put some lard (not Crisco, but pure rendered down hog lard) in the frying pan (about 2 tablespoons) threw in about 2 tablespoons of flour and hung up a piece of side meat (fat back with a streak of lean through it) to throw a shadow on the pan … there wouldn’t be enough meat during the week to go round, you see. Okay, that was probably a tale that got told, but tales always have a basis in fact. After Mac and I were married we would get to Alabama as often as we could, but with work and deployments (the Navy sure liked to float those boats) it was usually only about twice a year. Unfortunately visits were rare, life got in the way.
The first time I had Tomato Gravy was shortly after becoming a McBride. We arrived in Shreveport, La., late on a Friday night, I was introduced to the clan (Mac just sort of threw me in to sink or swim — do all husbands do that?) Saturday was a normal cereal breakfast and his sister, Kathy taught me how to eat Grape Nuts with hot milk instead of cold, it’s how I eat them to this day. But Sunday, now that was a breakfast to write home about. There were hot thick buttered grits, large portions of sausage patties, the most beautiful home made biscuits I have ever seen (apologies to my mother but the truth is the truth) perfectly fried eggs, each turned lovingly, yolk unbroken and a steaming bowl of Tomato Gravy. The bowl was white and had a yellow rose with just a hint of the leaf showing … the gravy was smooth except for the bright red chunks of tomato that poked out of the surface like waves of ambrosia. Mac’s mama looked over at him, love shining out of her eyes and said, “I made Tomato Gravy for you,” and his Daddy said, “why do we always have Tomato Gravy when the kids come home?” “Because they like it, ” she answered simply. Oh man, did we like it!
Soon after, his dad retired from Civil Service where he had worked closely with the Air Force as a crash scene investigator, they moved to Papa’s home town of Selma, Ala. That meant we got home a little more frequently and when my older son was two, we were stationed there. Mac was a Navy recruiter. I watched carefully every time the Tomato Gravy was made, and since we now lived close by, was often there to help in it’s preparation. My boys learned to love it and soon it was an extension of the family tradition. Though we didn’t have it every Sunday, more like once a month, it was something to look forward to. I didn’t want to make it so frequently that it lost its specialness. I wanted it to be something they would look forward to when they came home. The way it was special to Mac when he came home. Even now I can picture our niece Kari’s mouth watering, and I intend to make it this morning. I wish she were close enough to come join us. I’m going to call my older son and daughter-in-law, and tell them it’s Tomato Gravy Sunday. Maybe they’ll come join us.
Tomato Gravy: Fry enough bacon or sausage to feed your family, empty a large can (14 ounces) of stewed tomatoes into a sauce pan and add eight ounces of water and one half teaspoon of salt. Bring it to the boil and then cover and simmer until you’re ready to use it.
Put on a pot of grits and let it cook longer than the required cooking time. If it says it’s done in 5 minutes, I hate to tell you but they’re liars. Let them cook at least 15 minutes. And for those of you who have no idea what grits are or how to prepare them, I am so sorry for you. Just take this advice, never mind, you can’t miss what you’ve never had. Make hash browns instead. Make a pan of biscuits and bake them till they’re golden. You can use frozen biscuits or canned biscuits if you’re so inclined, it won’t hurt the flavor of the gravy.
If you have an iron skillet, please use it. This is what God intended the iron skillet to be used for. If you have fried the sausage in it, (please tell me you fried the sausage or bacon in it) pour off excess fat drippings, leave at least two tablespoons in the bottom with any “crusties” that might be left, two heaping tablespoons of flour to be added to this when the pan is nice and hot. Stir the flour in and make a roux, let it get chocolate brown, pour the simmered tomatoes into it all at once, stirring constantly. Turn on low and cover while you’re getting the rest of the breakfast (eggs) prepared the way you like them, scrambled or fried. If you don’t like eggs, don’t bother. Pour up the gravy in a bowl, grate fresh pepper over the top, give it a stir and call everyone to the table. Split a biscuit open and ladle on the gravy. You’re about to taste heaven.
Oh, and a little side note here, seems they stick all kinds of extra spices in tomatoes these days like oregano or basil. No no no, just plain tomatoes! Don’t mess with success!
— Sandi McBride is a resident of Jefferson, who blogs regularly and enjoys her garden and her furry and feathered friends. She is a wife and mother of two sons.