Biscuits and Gravy: My Favorite Classic Southern Breakfast Food

B&G Nealey DozierI’m not really sure when I developed my fondness for biscuits and gravy, as it was certainly not a regular part of my momma’s breakfast repertoire. Now don’t get me wrong. My momma was an outstanding country cook, but homemade breads (other than cornbread) was just not something she normally did.

On the other hand, my maternal grandmother made outrageously good biscuits. She would rise every morning before dawn, walk to the barn to milk the cow, and then walk back to the house where she would wake the biscuit1family and start her breakfast routine. This always meant scratch-made biscuits, about three-inches across and almost two-inches high, cut out with an old tin can from which both ends had been removed. I still remember how she would blend the Crisco into the mound of flour, baking powder and soda with her fingertips. Then she would make a well in the center, add fresh buttermilk, and gently knead the mixture into a smooth dough. Sometimes she would let me help cut out the biscuits while she carefully placed them in a large pan containing just a little hot grease, making sure she turned each biscuit over to coat each side. This, she contended, helped the biscuits develop a crisp brown top crust while the insides remained light and fluffy.

While the biscuits were cooking, she would fry some country sausage and use the drippings to make white cream gravy. Then we would all sit down to a big breakfast of eggs (gathered fresh that morning), sausage, biscuits, and gravy. Leftover biscuits were saved for mid-morning snacking.

While neither biscuits nor gravy actually originated in America, the dish seems to have emerged as a distinctively southern dish in the late 18th century, sometime after the American Revolutionary War. For persons facing a day of laboring in the fields of a farm or plantation, starting with a meal that was both tasty and filling was a necessity. But with food stuffs expensive and in short supply, it also had to be cheap. Thus came biscuits and gravy.

biscuits & gravyIn the South, pork sausage was both popular and available throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thanks to the English introducing pigs to Jamestown in 1608. And home cooks, in utilizing all an ingredient had to offer, turned the grease left from cooking the pork into gravy, using flour, water, milk, and pan scrapings. This kind of gravy, seasoned with only salt and black pepper is known by several names including Sawmill Gravy, Logging Gravy, Life Everlasting, and Poor Do, all of which suggest subsistence food for the poor.

Sawmill gravy (logging gravy) got its name from its association with the Appalachian logging camps of the late 19th century, where crews and their families often survived on little more than coffee, meat, gravy, and biscuits. Also unique to these camps were the “cat head biscuits,” so called because of their size and rough exterior, reminiscent of a cat’s head.

Other variations of breakfast gravies found served over biscuits include:

? Country, cream, milk, or white gravy – essentially sawmill gravy seasoned only with salt and pepper, without the crumbled sausage bits. This kind of gravy (essentially a Béchamel sauce) is not only good over biscuits, but with chicken fried steak and fried chicken as well.
? Egg gravy – a white gravy made with bacon fat, flour, salt, pepper, and equal parts milk and water, to which a beaten egg is swiftly stirred.
? Chocolate gravy – another variation of cream or milk gravy to which cocoa powder and sometimes sugar has been added.
? Red-eye gravy – usually made from the drippings of pan fried ham which has been deglazed with black coffee. This is another staple of southern cuisine and is sometimes served over grits, as well as biscuits.
? Tomato gravy – white gravy with diced or crushed tomatoes mixed in.

Biscuits too can be prepared in numerous ways. The dough can be rolled or patted flat and cut into rounds. Or, if extra liquid is added to the dough to bring its consistency to that of stiff pancake batter, spoonfuls can be dropped onto the baking sheet, producing “drop biscuits.” Another common variation is “cheese biscuits,” made by adding grated cheddar cheese to basic biscuit dough.

biscuit3Today, one does not need baking skills to enjoy biscuits. There are any number of biscuit mixes available at your local supermarket that require only the addition of water to make dough which you yourself cut, pan, and bake. Also available in the freezer section of your food store is pre-measured frozen biscuit dough, which requires only placing the pucks on a pan and baking. Any of these products will give you an acceptable morning biscuit.

Far less acceptable, but more convenient, are fresh or frozen pre-baked biscuits that need only be heated for a few seconds in your microwave. These are usually available at some independent bakeries and upper end supermarkets.

9c09_35And finally, the abomination of all biscuits–the refrigerated biscuit! Developed and patented in 1931 by Ballard and Ballard, these cylindrical segments of dough encased in a cardboard can may be convenient and even somewhat tasty, but they do not a biscuit make. As much as I hate to admit it, this was my mom and dad’s idea of “homemade” biscuits.

biscuit2I guess all of those times helping grandmother make her fantastic biscuits must have had a positive impact on not only my taste buds but my desire to never again have to eat those store bought cardboard canned biscuits. Today, I make my own buttermilk biscuits totally from scratch. And what’s more, they are a golden, crisp, brown on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside. Damn near as good as grandmother’s. In fact, writing this story has made me really hungry for– you guessed it–homemade biscuits and sawmill gravy. So, I’m off to the kitchen to whip up a batch. Wanna join me?

Try Em: Southern Sausage Gravy, Appalachian Sawmill Gravy, Old Fashioned Buttermilk Biscuits, White Lily Light and Fluffy Biscuits

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Muscadine, the Native Grape of North America

On a recent road trip, I had the occasion to stop at one of those super travel stations. You know the ones I mean–gasoline, snacks, souvenirs, clean restrooms, and usually a barbeque or fast food restaurant. While browsing the aisles, I happened to notice a wide selection of what appeared to be jars of home-canned fruits, compotes, jams, and jellies. MuscadineJelly-4685-9-2And there, right between the “Homemade Pear Butter” and “Brandied Peach Preserves,” was a jar of sweet goodness that made my mouth salivate, a treat my tongue hadn’t experienced in at least three decades–a Ball jar of clear, deep violet colored muscadine jelly. An absolute must-have!

As I pulled my car back onto the highway, jelly in tow, my mind wandered back to my youth when my parents would take me to visit grandmother’s farm in southeastern Oklahoma. And of course, most of the time one or two of my mother’s sisters or brothers or both were also there, as well as four to six cousins. As there was little or no TV reception at the farm, we kids would spend our days playing in the barn or smoke house or down at the stock tank fishing. Occasionally, one of Muscadinethe older cousins would take us younger ones beyond the pasture and past the peanut fields down to the marshes where thick vines grew wild, climbing high into the trees. And there we would pick muscadines, filling our buckets with those deep purple, almost black fruits that were as big around as quarters. And being the kids we were, we would swing from the vines and eat so many of the luscious berries that our fingers and tongues would become discolored from chewing on the skins, trying to get out as much of the flavor as possible.

When we got back to the farmhouse, my mother, grandmother, and aunts would wash, cook, and strain the fruit, “putting up” several dozen jars of homemade muscadine jelly. And since my father was partial to preserves instead of jelly, grandmother would always make sure her son-in-law had a few jars that included the skins (or hulls, as we called them), and pulp. Of course a few seeds were always able to sneak in as well, but to my dad that didn’t seem to matter.

There was nothing better than one of my grandmother’s hot biscuits slathered with fresh churned butter and topped with a thick layer of that delectable muscadine jelly.

ESIC_black_muscadineLong before European and Spanish explorers set foot on American soil, the Cherokee and Creek Indians were making raisins, dumplings, drinks, and poultices from wild grapes they called muscadines.

Native only to the Southeastern and Southern United States, muscadines thrived in the warm, humid climate so prevalent in those states. In the mid-1600s when Arthur Barlowe, an English sea captain and explorer serving under the direction of Sir Walter Raleigh, landed on the banks of what is now Roanoke Island, he was so taken by the number of muscadine vines and fruit he saw that he wrote to Raleigh extolling that the fruitful land was “full of grapes, that I think in all the world, like abundance is not to be found.”

Scuppernong_mother_vine by Catherine KozakWhen Raleigh came to North Carolina in 1585, he discovered what is thought today to be the oldest grapevine in the United States, describing it as having a trunk two feet thick and stretching over one-half an acre long and coiling up tree trunks growing sixty feet tall. Actually this 400 year old producing “mother vine” is of the variety called scuppernong muscadine. The scuppernong was the first native American grape to be culitvated and is the state fruit of North Carolina.

Wild muscadine vines can be found growing from southern Delaware, southward along the Atlantic coast to northern Florida, and westward to Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. And because the muscadine is a native plant, its vines are practically immune to the fungus, bacteria, and plant pests that can destroy European grapevines. Muscadines grow best in fertile sandy loam of well-drained bottom lands that are subjected to neither extended drought or waterlogging.

scuppeernong 2Today, there are more than 300 muscadine cultivars, ranging in color from black to whitish bronze to dark purple. There are also red varieties and even some that remain green through maturity. The skins of muscadines are thick and so tough that many people bite off a small piece and suck out the sweet flesh inside. But it is the skins and seeds that excite many of today’s food scientists and nutritionists. They have found that powdered muscadine puree has more dietary fiber than oat or rice bran and can therefore help provide a wide range of health benefits including lowering blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol levels.

Publication1Research has also found that the muscadine is extremely high in resveratrol, the phytochemical found in red wine and thought to be the underlying reason that the French have such a low incidence of coronary heart disease. In fact, one serving of muscadine jam, one medium muscadine muffin, or two ounces of muscadine juice contain as much resveratrol as four ounces of red wine.

So there you go. Just another example of some of the delicious, yet healthy foods that are native to this great country in which we live. Now if you’ll excuse me, the biscuits just came out of the oven and my jar of homemade muscadine jelly awaits my presence at the breakfast table. Bon appétit, y’all!

Buy Em: Muscadine jelly ($4/10oz) or juice ($7/750ml) Hillside Vineyard & Berry Farm, Kosclusko, MS; Muscadine Jelly ($3.99/9oz) Southern Grace Farms, Enigma, GA; Ozark Country Market, Heber Springs, AR

Make Em: Muscadine Jelly, Grape Hull Pie, Muscadine Dump Cake