Please Pass the Tomato Gravy

Oct 18, 2013

News Press Storyteller Amy Bennett Williams is a bit of a culinary anthropologist. Her most recent foray into the culture of food includes an old timey cracker favorite - tomato gravy.

Maybe it was first-generation English; maybe it was immigrant zeal to belong, but I'd always heard that my Italian ancestors, newly arrived from the old country, dressed their pasta in what they called "tomato gravy" — not sauce, as we know it today.

I never gave it much thought until I was talking to Sanibel native Ralph Woodring a few years ago about his mom, the late (and legendary) fishing guide, Esperanza Woodring. What was her cooking like, I'd wanted to know. He sighed a bit wistfully as he told me that when she was a widowed young mother in the post-Depression, pre-causeway days, putting meals on the table was no easy feat, but by God, she managed.

Naturally, fish figured prominently in her repertoire — "Produce was damned hard to come by," Ralph told me — particularly plentiful mullet, which she fried, baked and boiled, he said.

"I know it doesn't sound too good, but if you boil it just right and then add salt and pepper and some of the sauce made with the bird's-eye peppers that used to grow wild around here, it was good."

Esperanza also stewed grouper and made redfish baked with bread stuffing and a "real rich tomato gravy for it."

Tomato gravy? He didn't recall the particulars, but it was delicious, he assured me, and pure Cracker culinary genius.

I'm pretty sure what she made was nothing like the olive oil- and garlic-rich ragout my Grandma made, but ever since then, I've been on the lookout for any mentions of Cracker tomato gravy, and just last week, I found a spate of them.

Leave it to the Internet to satisfy my hunger for old-timey foodways — it was as I was reading Facebook posts about how Crackers like their grits (yes, I'm a bit food-obsessed) and I noticed that many of those responding preferred them with tomato gravy.

So there it was again: Cracker tomato gravy, but this time, I was going to see if I could pin down its character. So I asked the posters — a wonderful, self-selected group of "True Florida Crackers" about it and was rewarded with a flurry of responses — more than 30 and counting.

It was, of course, great on grits, but also on pork chops, rice, smoked sausage, okra, fried mullet gizzards, venison cube steak, cooter turtle, black-eyed peas and cathead biscuits (though what, exactly a cathead biscuit is a question I'll have to ask another day).

As for its preparation, there seemed to be differing schools of thought. Some use canned tomato soup or juice, while others favor the real thing.

Since I'm more a real thing kind of person, I paid closest attention to those instructions, which seemed to follow the same broad outlines and usually began with salt pork or bacon.

"We always started with salt pork or saved-up fat drippings from the can that sat on the counter or in the (refrigerator)," wrote Sybil Quave. "Put in a No. 10 cast-iron chicken fryer. Melt, add diced onions, saute. Add flour, brown to the color of a copper penny. Do not scorch. Add water (this is the roux). When you have the correct consistency for gravy, add home-canned, peeled tomatoes. Add salt and lots of pepper, to taste."

Mary Frances Parrish's technique was similar: " I fry a few pieces of bacon, then add a little flour to the bacon grease. Let it brown just a little and add fresh tomatoes if available, if not canned (especially home-canned) tomatoes will do. Cook until thickened, and add salt, pepper and a teaspoon of sugar. Serve over grits or rice. That also calls for hot biscuit. For dessert, split a couple biscuits, and smother them in the tomato gravy."

Oh, Lordy, does that sound good! And while it may not be exactly how my nana would have made it, I'm pretty sure I know what she and my other Italian ancestors would say when presented with a steaming helping of Cracker tomato gravy: Buon appetito — mangia!