1. In Texas, what is the correct topping for mashed potatoes?
2. In Texas, what is the correct topping for biscuits, besides butter, honey or jam?
3. In Texas, what is the correct topping for chicken fried steak?
4. In Texas, what is the correct topping for any other piece of meat, fish or sausage and/or any other vegetable?
5. What did my great-grandmother Blanche feed her dog, Rover?
Did you answer “cream gravy” for all five questions? Fantastic, here’s a gold star! Otherwise, let me explain.
While chili gravy is the essence of Tex-Mex, one of the hallmarks of Tex-Tex is cream gravy. This thick, peppery and creamy sauce is poured over everything, as you can see by the above questions. It’s a simple concoction, made with pan drippings, flour, milk and cracked black pepper. But while it may appear plain, it’s infinitely delicious. Sometimes it goes by the name country gravy or white gravy, but in Texas we always call it cream gravy. Or better yet—just gravy because in Texas there really is no other kind.
The history of cream gravy goes back hundreds of years with its origins springing from limited means. People didn’t have the ingredients to make complex meat-stock gravies, but there was always flour, milk and pepper on hand to add to the pan drippings. Not only did my great-grandmothers make the stuff but they probably learned how to make it from their mothers. My grandma tells me they ate it all the time, pouring it over everything as it was a great way to stretch a meal during the Depression. And apparently my great-grandma Blanche even whipped up batches from her bottomless can of bacon grease to feed her dog.
As you can see, my family has a long history with cream gravy. And while I have always loved it, I never thought it was unique because it was always both expected and available. I remember the first time, however, I ordered mashed potatoes outside the state. I asked for extra gravy, which they generously provided, but what they served me wasn’t white, it was brown. I was horrified. “What’s this?” I asked. “It’s gravy,” my server replied. Well, it may have been gravy, but it wasn’t the right kind of gravy.
(Note: Not all cream gravy is pure white. Mine always turns out slightly off white, as you can see in the photos. That’s because of the dark color of my pan drippings and I use King Arthur’s White Whole-Wheat Flour, which isn’t very white, it’s more beige. But I digress.)
It’s still impossible to find cream gravy at restaurants in the Northeast. And I even had a hard time convincing a restaurant in Alabama (of all places!) last year to serve me cream gravy instead of brown gravy. Since cream gravy is rooted in a time when people didn’t have a lot, I bet brown gravy is perceived as a fancy rich-man’s food. But if it comes from a jar or a can as it so often does, brown gravy is not any improvement on the sublime simplicity of cream gravy.
To craft cream gravy is a cinch. I watched my mother prepare it all my life, so it’s just one of those things you know how to do without thinking about precise measurements and such. But if you’ve never made it I will provide you with guidance and a recipe. It’s best cooked with pan drippings, but you can do it from scratch with either vegetable oil or bacon grease. And while cracked black pepper is the traditional seasoning, you can tart it up with chipotles, jalapenos, cayenne or chile powder.
Now, if you’re looking for a vehicle for your gravy, watch this space. To celebrate Texas Independence Day on March 2nd, later this week I’ll talk about our state dish, chicken fried steak—always best served swimming in cream gravy. Until then, you can try it on your potatoes, your biscuits, your rice or anything else you want to drown in peppery, creamy delight. And heck, if for some bizarre reason you decide you don’t like it, you can do as Grandma Blanche and feed it to your dog.
2 tablespoons pan drippings, bacon grease, or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon black pepper
Salt to taste
Combine the fat with flour in a hot skillet, continuously stirring, cook on medium for a couple of minutes until a roux is formed.
Add milk slowly to the skillet, and mix with roux using either a whisk or wooden spoon (be sure and press out any lumps). Turn heat to low and continue stirring until mixture is thickened, a couple more minutes. Add the pepper then salt to taste.
If the gravy is too thick, you can thin it by adding either more milk or water a tablespoon at a time. Goes great with mashed potatoes, fried chicken, biscuits, chicken fried steak, grits, vegetables, rice or anything else you can imagine.