embarking mere moments ago (NB: the author’s sense of time at the “present” is a little less than reliable, thus it possible that “mere moments” refers actually to the entire duration of human history) on the preliminary research for what i hoped might stand as the ultimate paean to GRAVY, i find myself mired (pleasantly so) in the surprisingly interesting historical and chemical miscellany of starch.
who knew? i mean, i know!
there are all sorts of such tidbits in the chapter “Sauces Thickened With Flour and Starch” of H. McGee’s On Food and Cooking (which forthwith, in deference to the amount of play it gets and i know will get on this blog, shall be referred to as OFnC, or something like that. you’ll know it when you see it, i trust), tidbits which have substantially impacted my embarrassingly dismissive prior opinion of the starches.
admittedly, in my head, “starch” previously conjured up cornstarch alone (a “cheap” [as in, morally bankrupt] thickener), and hazy chemistry class memories of bananas horribly blackened by, what, lithium? iodine? but basically, as soon as i read “the molecule in which most plants store the energy they generate from photosynthesis” i fairly shouted aloud something like “man, starches are actually really cool!” and by the end of the lengthy description of the process of its acquisition by the ancient Romans (involving multiple grindings of flour, soakings in water, harnessings of the power of mighty bacteria to digest the cell walls and proteins of the grain, and finally drying in the sun in a veritable Planeteersian* team effort [i guess the bacteria is heart?]) i was sold! and by sold, i mean i have overcome my previous prejudice against the idea of starch-thickened sauces, although like a fuck i will probably stick to flour.
anyway, gravy is a wonderful thing. an ongoing point of dispute at work is my tendency, as a once-vegan, to unproblematically refer to vegan bastardizations of specific dishes by their maternal nomenclature, which my coworkers invariably protest. predictable and understandable examples would be any time i talk about fake meat. somewhere in the middle would be any time i refer to cream sauces, béchamel, etc., and get called out for my refusal to use either milk or cream (which i acknowledge as glaringly arbitrary of me, given my prodigious cheese consumption), which occasionally escalate into accusations that i must secretly abominate The French (or at least the venerable institution of their cuisine), using soy milk (or the somewhat less reviled almond milk, which at least has an air of decadence) as i do, and of course, how can i even expect anything to turn out right, making such an egregious substitution**. and i grant this, to an extent, because yes, chemically, cream and soy milk are not of the same realm, just as one cannot rely upon margarine to behave as butter in any but the most limited and superficial territory (margarine blanc, anybody? yeah, no. i know), such as making toast more delicious and less dry.
on which note, to all the unilateral butter supremacists who refuse to see margarine as anything but a hopeless, irredeemable, and pathetically ersatz pretender to the throne, i counter that what margarine can do that butter never can is to make something taste like it is covered in margarine. which, look down your nose all you please, amounts to making something taste like it is covered in salty oil, and if you can’t appreciate that you best step back, because brother you are living your life like it is but an empty coffin.
moving on. or….back. they (the Coworkers. or perhaps CoEmployees, in recognition of the quality and frequency of our work) also gave me shit for talking about wanting to eat a sub, because as every asshole Italian and Greek apparently knows, it’s not a “sub” unless it’s got three kinds of meat on it. which may be true (i don’t know. probably. i give up arguing at around this point), but as much as i am a sucker for specificity, i also simultaneously and contradictorily respect the power of the vernacular to overwhelm these finer distinctions and the (oft-times arbitrary) purity of their definitions with its blunt and mighty obliviousness.
but seriously (before i spiral garrulously into a hideous vortex of talking just about language and not about gravy specifically):
LET’S GET BACK TO GRAVY.
in all fairness to The Bastards, gravy really is a sauce made from the juices and scrapey detritus of cooked meats, thickened with starch or flour – defined in part by its last-minute concoction. in fact, this economy of ingredients and slapdash constitution is part not only of its charm but its distinction from other sauces – a long-cooked French brown sauce for example – part of its identity as gravy, arguably. on the topic of arguably, in contrast to many vegan/vegetarian variations on traditionally meaty foodstuffs, vegetarian gravy occupies the somewhat rare position of actually already having non-meat-specific nomenclature pre-existing (huh?). mock chicken is mock chicken because i guess you could call it a gluten wad or whatever (which a lot of asian packaging already does, god love their no-nonsense ESL labelling), but mushroom gravy and peppercorn gravy and miso gravy really needn’t be called gravy pe se, because they’re not meat-based and not even really fat-based and there are already all sorts of sauces to which they bear a keener resemblance similar constitution.
so why gravy? why not sauce? miso-sauce, peppercorn sauce, mushroom sauce?
because very, very simply, gravy rules.
put in other words, this is the sort of the same as the answer to Why Mock Chicken (and not gluten wad)? because we are attracted to the familiar, because it evokes something we (as vegetarians) miss or which conjure up positive associations, blah blah blah… but it is also different, because (duh) gravy rules, and you know it does. it’s not just a sauce, it’s GRAVY, and we all know that every family’s gravy is different, but we also know that gravy means rich and it means savoury and it means salty, and brown probably, and still more that the appetite of our reptilian brain has been aroused and the better angels of our nature are about to not merely be put to sleep, but to be suffocated along with our mashed potatoes or our dinner pie or our biscuits as our previous desire to Eat Some Food is subsumed into our desire to Impenitently Use Food As A Medium For Gravy. gravy is the food that begins as a condiment (oh! a running theme!) and ends as a Food, to which the previous centrepieces of the meal are reduced to thin (albeit delicious in their own right) pretext.
it’s like, “Much as the king loved to see his people at peace, no less could he curb the urge of his barbarian heritage to see red blood flow and to feel the crunch of an enemy’s armor and bones beneath the edge of his heavy broadsword,”***
right? i know.
gravy is the usurper (barbarian, probably) to the throne, and this we know when we break bread with it, and that’s what’s great – and all this (expansive arm gesture), really, was intended as be a vaguely interesting preamble to me talking about how i just want you to eat more gravy. and how i want you, above all, to not be afraid of gravy.in summation (Points on Approaching the Realness of Gravy):
you can call it sauce, should you want to, but you won’t, probably, because in spite of all the above precision quibbling, Gravy as an idea is in a sense the license which frees us from the constraints of the recipe, which frees us of the fear of fucking up a sauce (which has honestly been worrying at my bloodied heels like niggling feral dogs ever since i got it into my head that i should develop a “solid foundation in traditional French saucery”), and allows us to, well, really, to Go Big Or Go Home (a lesson tim taught me, i believe, somewhere between our 3rd margarita and our 2nd mimosa), or to Not, If We Don’t Feel Like it. gravy has the benefit of being very processual – it is so easy to work on a gravy for a while (this is the difference between gravy of the spirit [my gravy] and gravy of the letter [simple, meat n flour gravy], the latter being quick, the former necessarily somewhat longer term), believe it’s going well, add a few things, ruin it, then with either careful attention or a couple of inspired creative flourishes (ie: booze), catapult it into the seat of unimpeachable grace! gravy is thus endlessly redeemable, so long as one believes in gravy and believes in oneself (duh).
- roux. don’t worry about it. it’s easy. if not butter, then margarine. if not margarine, oil. and flour. roux is simple. traditionally, equal parts flour and fat, cooked to one of three degrees – moisture reduced, but flour still whitish; flour cooked to golden paste; flour cooked to brown (or supposedly red, hence roux/rouge), and then the slow integration of water, broth, soy milk, beer, wine (see below), whatever.
- booze, dear friend. wine, whiskey, beer, friggin’ whatever. NB: if you’re working with soy milk, beware of the acidity of the alcohol causing gnarly separation, but just mind your business, and shit’ll work out.
- ummmmmm……yeah, believe in yourself. also believe in fresh coarsely ground black pepper. possibly a mix of peppers.
i put it on everything?
** imagine how cheered i was when i encountered this, wherein a true frenchwoman validates the use of milk substitutes for bechamel. eat that.
***Robert E. Howard, on King Conan.