As someone who believes the world is suffering from a serious shortage of good gravy, I tried to remedy the situation recently by whipping up some red-eye.
Red-eye gravy is made with ham drippings. Other ingredients usually include a piece of ham fat and a cup of coffee. One recipe I used called for an unusual gravy ingredient, brown sugar. Red-eye gravy is not something you eat to clean out your arteries, increase your fiber or make you feel nutritionally correct. Rather, red-eye gravy is something you pour on ham, eggs, toast, grits or even tuckered-out turkey. It tastes good and makes you feel glad to be alive. I call it a mental health dish.
My research found there are several ways to make red-eye gravy and several stories of how the gravy got its name. According to John Mariani's "The Dictionary of American Food & Drink" (Ticknor & Fields, 1983), the gravy took its name from the "red eye" that appeared in the pan when the gravy begins to boil.
A more colorful story linked the name of this Southern-style gravy to Andrew Jackson, famed fighter and president of the United States. As recounted in John Egerton's "Southern Food" (Knopf, 1987), Jackson reportedly once told a whiskey-drinking cook to bring him some ham with gravy that was "as red as your eyes."
Finally, there was the strong possibility that the gravy got its name from the red color of the ham juice. Of the three, I prefer the Old Hickory explanation. It makes the best story, and has a strong regional ring to it. Jackson spent much of his life in Tennessee, which, along with Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and parts of Missouri, is home to some of the best mental health food known to man, country ham. All red-eye makers agree that the best gravy is made from the drippings of a salt-cured, hickory-smoked, properly aged country ham.
"When ham has smoke and salt on it, you get more flavor in the gravy," Horst Kruppa told me. As chef for Geo. A. Hormel & Co., Kruppa said he spent much of his time at the company's Austin, Minn., headquarters working on dishes using the new low-salt style of hams. Nonetheless, Kruppa said he was a big fan of old-style red-eye gravy. During a phone conversation, Kruppa suggested pouring the gravy over slices of ham and turkey on toast. My stomach started to growl.
FTC Last Sunday afternoon I tried a couple variations of Kruppa's recipes. First I cut a piece of fat from the edge of a slab of country ham and rubbed the fat on the bottom of a heated skillet. I slashed the ham edges to prevent them from curling, plopped the ham in the skillet and sprinkled 3/4 tablespoon brown sugar on top of the ham. This was the only red-eye recipe I found that called for brown sugar. But even if it had come from a guy in Minnesota named Horst, the idea struck me as keeping with the Southern heritage of the gravy. The South has always been a friend of brown sugar.
Next, I flipped the ham slice and sprinkled sugar on the other side. When the sugar had caramelized, I took the ham out of the skillet. At this point in the proceedings my kids came running into the kitchen. The aroma of the sizzling ham was so powerful it had lured them away from the television set. The kids wanted to eat the ham right away. I told them they had to wait for the red-eye.
The skillet crackled as I poured in a cup of water. While stirring the liquid, I turned up the heat under the skillet. Soon I saw the "red eye" appear in the pan. I felt a sense of accomplishment, something like what you feel when you spot the Big Dipper. You knew it was supposed to show up, yet you still feel proud.
I suffered through the gravy-maker's dilemma of when to pull the pan off the fire. I knew that the longer the gravy "reduced," or bubbled, the stronger the gravy would taste. But I also knew that the longer the gravy bubbled, the smaller its yield would be. After about five minutes I gave up and poured the gravy over the ham and toast. This gravy was a big hit, a bit sweet, but hard to resist.
I made the gravy a second time using a cup of coffee instead of water. In some red-eye camps, a cup of coffee is a required ingredient. In others, a mixture of coffee and water will do. Still others say if you use authentic country ham, the coffee won't be necessary.
My coffee-flavored version of red-eye had a pleasing, if somewhat salty, bite. I liked it. My tasters, my wife and kids, preferred the sweeter style. All seemed to agree that red-eye was worth making again. A small step had been taken toward easing the shortage of good gravy.