* The Legacy of a Typo: A Meditation on Tomato Gravy

Tomatoes and tomato gravy cropped 3 dark contrasts
Farm stand with fresh tomatoes (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Stirring the flour into bacon drippings, creating a blond roux, and sautéing finely chopped yellow onions in the mixture turned out to be quite an adventure.

No, I didn’t burn myself – for once – on the lethal combination of hot fat and flour. No, in the seemingly simple and slow act of making tomato gravy, to serve over biscuits or fried chicken, I started thinking about the role of gravy in Southern cooking, and by extension, in American cooking in general.

You see, I remember wondering why there seemed to be no gravy as I knew it in the various other cuisines I encountered over the years. No word for gravy, so to speak. Just sauce, which, of course, gravy is, a type of sauce. Very British, gravy is.

And there’s a fascinating reason for that.

Tomatoes 4 dark contrasts
Canned tomatoes for tomato gravy (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Colin Spencer, in British Food (Columbia University Press, 2002), describes “gravey” as eaten by monks in Westminster Abbey:

Another dish, gravey, was ground almonds mixed with broth with diced rabbit, chicken, oysters, or eel, flavoured with sugar and ginger; when this pottage was thickened with egg yolks and diced cheeses, it was called ‘gravey enforced’. (p. 96)

On page 43, he suggests the origin of the word comes from Old French graine, which meant meat.

Or grané, “grain of spice.”

So what happened?

Kate Burridge in Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further Observations on the Tangled History of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 69-71) claims that “gravy” is a “ghost word” because “gravey” came about because of a scribal error, the “n” and “v” in French writing of the time being hard to distinguish.

Some tired monk, waiting for his ale ration no doubt, misread a word. This may be related to a fourteenth-century French cookbook, according to Burridge, but I need to check this out more closely, the only likely candidates being Le Viandier de Taillevent and Le Ménagier de Paris. To prove my point, I did a little more reading and came up with this: According to transcriber Karen Hess in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery (Columbia University Press, 1995, p. 44), Le Viandier is where the word first showed up,

in the Sion MS. of Le Viandier, before 1300, was repeated in later manuscripts, and again in Le Ménagier, about 1390 … .

And we got “gravey.”

Tomato gravy starts out like many other such gravy dishes in Southern cuisine, a bit of fat – bacon – and flour, stirred until the flour begins to brown a bit, taking advantage of the Maillard browning reaction, then some onion tossed in, maybe a touch of garlic and a sprinkle of thyme, then chopped tomatoes. Now the thing to realize here is that fresh tomatoes only last a while under normal circumstances, being seasonal. So how did it happen that tomato gravy evolved at all, into a dish rarely mentioned in old cookbooks? Of course, you know that tomatoes didn’t exactly get a royal warm welcome when they first appeared in sixteenth-century Europe after Columbus “found” the New World. English botanist John Gerard did mention tomatoes in 1597, pretty early on, mostly in conjunction with Spanish cuisine.

But by the eighteenth century, tomatoes began appearing in English cookbooks. Thomas Jefferson mentioned tomatoes in Query VI of his Notes on the State of Virginia:

The gardens yield muskmelons, watermelons, tomatas, okra, pomegranates, figs, and the esculent plants of Europe.

Jefferson’s relative Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife (1824) featured fourteen recipes for tomatoes, but tomato gravy wasn’t one of them.

I suspect – and I need to study this more* – that tomato gravy emerged as a dish when women could “put up” tomatoes, which means the late nineteenth-century, around 1884, when Ball canning jars became available. And practical to use.

As with so much of Southern (and other) cuisine, tomato gravy represents the need for preserving foods, foods that carried people through cold winters when agricultural production came to a standstill. Canned tomatoes worked well when a cook needed something to fill up stomachs. Using staples – flour, onions, bacon, black pepper, the cook simply used canned tomatoes instead of sausage or other meat. The result: tomato gravy. Good over biscuits, fried chicken, grits, meatloaf, potatoes, or just about anything. Some modern recipes suggest using milk as liquid, but stock or water works, too.

A simple dish, tomato gravy, but one oozing with history.

* And I haven’t yet started on contemplating the African or French connections. For more on canning tomatoes in the South, see Elizabeth Engelhardt’s “Canning Tomatoes, Growing ‘Better and More Perfect Women’: The Girls’ Tomato Club Movement” in Southern Cultures 15:4, 2009.

Tomato and tomato gravy dark contrasts 2
Tomato portrait (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2013 C. Bertelsen



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