There is more to making the pancakes than following the recipe. The recipe matters, of course, but its list of ordinary ingredients and simple instructions won’t show you how to move your wrist swirling the batter in the pan or how to wait for the dancing water.
I’ve mentioned it before, my mom’s gravy, how it was a sign I had arrived, culinarily speaking, when at last I mastered it.
But the gravy was more than just a skill to acquire, more than just a rural roux. Knowing how to make gravy meant I could run a household; I could be resourceful. It also meant I would never go hungry.
Ideally, my mom’s white gravy was made with country sausage and served over biscuits. We loved it that way for breakfast on weekends. But more often than not, we would make it with a less expensive meat – like bologna or dried beef in the 29 cent package – and eat it for dinner over bread. It was tasty and filling.
I thought of my mom’s gravy as I read Nancy J. Nordenson’s essay, “Things That Fall and Things That Stand,” in The Spirit of Food. In her essay, Nordenson describes the process of making Swedish pancakes, a recipe handed down from her grandfather, to her mother, to her. The ingredient list is surprisingly simple, just eggs, milk, flour and shortening. But according to the author, the recipe doesn’t tell you everything.
That’s how it was with the gravy. For years, I simply watched. Then, I was allowed to stir. Eventually, I got to start from the moment the meat was taken out of the pan, though to this day I can’t really tell you how it’s done.
If we were actually making gravy with sausage, my mom would dip out the ground meat from the grease, leaving just enough of the liquid fat to cover the bottom of the iron skillet, and then some. If we started with bologna or dried beef, we would add fat to the pan, maybe vegetable oil, probably bacon grease from the container in the fridge.
Then, we would turn the heat back up on the skillet, and just as the grease got hot, my mom would have me spoon in the flour. When I asked her how much to add, she would say, “A tablespoon of flour for each cup of milk.” When I asked her how much milk, she would always say, “Until it gets to the right consistency.”
So, I usually dumped in 2-3 tablespoons of flour and hoped for the best.
As I stirred the flour into the fat, it began to bubble. My mom would hand me the salt and pepper shakers and watch as I jiggled them over the skillet until it was just enough. “That’s good,” she would tell me, though I never knew how she could tell how much came out. The salt that is; the pepper flecks would freckle the flour and I continued to stir, scraping the bottom of the pan to pull in any crispy meat chunks that might have stuck.
The next step was critical. Mom would pull the milk jug out of the refrigerator, and if I was lucky, she would pour in the milk while I stirred. When I got older, I had to pour and stir myself, waiting to hear “when.” Then, the chunks of meat would go back into the mixture. And the stirring began.
You have to keep stirring, she would tell me, as she heated up vegetables and set the table. She pull out the loaf of bread and mustard, while I was still stirring. If I got distracted, she would remind me with, “How is it looking?”
“It’s starting to thicken,” I’d tell her.
“Already?” she would say, as she came over to look. But it was usually my imagination at first, because gravy seemed to take forever to thicken.
But eventually the magic happened, with Mom back in front of the stove with me. I would keep stirring, and she would watch, sometimes pouring in a little more milk. Sometimes, adding flour to a little water in a cup and then pouring in the additional thickener. Suddenly, she would turn off the burner and announce it was finished.
With help, I would tilt the skillet and fill the serving bowl with the thick gravy. I would add it to the already set table while my mom would announce to everyone in the house, “Supper.”
Then, we would eat our fill.
I am writing today in community with my friends at thehighcalling.org. Each week , we are working our way through the book, The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields. Today, we considered essays ten through twelve, in a section called “In the Kitchen.” Click on the button above to see what others are writing. Then, pick up the book yourself and join us for next Monday’s discussion.