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What is Red-Eye Gravy?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Red-eye gravy is a type of gravy often found and originating in the American South, in regions such as Alabama and Louisiana. Typically made from rendered pork fat and drippings deglazed with coffee, the origin of the name has a fair amount of myth and rumor surrounding it. Red-eye gravy is often served with biscuits, grits, ham, and cornbread and can be a part of just about any type of meal found in the Southern portion of the United States (US).

While some sources point to red-eye gravy getting its name from a famous person, such as former US President Andrew Jackson asking for gravy like the red eyes of the cook, purported to have been drinking the night before the fabled meeting, it is likely that the name comes from the appearance of the gravy. If red-eye gravy is prepared traditionally with coffee and pork fat, the grease from the fat and the coffee separate in a container. If held in a round container such as a bowl, then the separate elements can resemble an eye, with the clear fat resembling the iris and the darker coffee appearing similar to a bloodshot eye. Other sources sight the use of coffee in the gravy as the source of the name, as eating it will potentially give a person a caffeine rush that could lead to a lack of sleep.

Regardless of the origins of the name, making red-eye gravy is a fairly simple process. Typically, it begins with cooking a ham, or part of a ham such as the fat back, in a skillet. Salted country ham is often preferred for flavor and for fat content, and the piece of ham may need to be scored with a knife before cooking. During the cooking process, fat will render out from the ham and small bits of meat will inevitably stick to the skillet.

Once the ham is cooked, it is removed from the skillet and set aside. The skillet is then deglazed using coffee, though water can be used but will lack a great deal of the flavor typically associated with red-eye gravy. A small amount of coffee is added to the hot skillet and then stirred with a spatula or spoon to loosen up the bits of ham still stuck to the pan, sometimes called fond, and this is then removed from the skillet to a serving bowl or gravy boat. The finished red-eye gravy is often used for dunking cornbread or biscuits into, or poured over the cooked ham with grits or eggs.

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