The name of a dog food and the subject of at least one blues song by W.C. Handy, gravy train is a slang term which refers to easy money that just keeps on rolling in, with little effort required. Say, for instance, you receive a large inheritance from a mysterious relative, which comes in monthly installments: You are riding the gravy train. Where did we get this curious idiom?
Origin of the Word Gravy
Although gravy, in America, refers to a sauce made from meat drippings, the word is thought to have come from the comes from the Old French word grané, which was turned into the Middle English gravé. This may have been the result of someone simply misreading the word grané. The modern v was written as uin Medieval manuscripts and could be difficult to distinguish from n. The origin of the word grané, however, is not entirely clear. The usual suggestion is that it derived from the Latin word granum, meaning grain, which became the Old French and the English word grain, with grain, in Old French, meaning spice. We can only speculate how “spice” came to be translated as a sauce, but perhaps “spiced sauce” makes sense.
In medieval cookbooks, gravé referred to a spicy sauce made with broth, spices, wine, or ale. By the 16th century, the term somehow came to be known as a sauce made from meat drippings.
Italian Sauce or Gravy?
For Italian Americans, the term gravy often refers to a meat-based sugo or ragù. Sugo alla Bolognese is the full term for what Americans call simply Bolognese, and sugo came from the word succo, which could mean pan drippings or meat juices or even a full-on “meat sauce.”
There is endless debate as to whether “real Italians” say “gravy” or “sauce.” Some Italian-Americans contend that the word “sauce” is sacrilege, and one Italian cookbook author, Elizabeth Barone Callahan, writes “neither the word sauce nor the use of sauces was part of the Italian ethnic experience.” This seems to be quite a strict delineation of the word sauce, perhaps to refer only to French sauces, but indeed, the word “salsa” was part of the Italian ethnic experience, and this translates into the English sauce, although in our case it was by way of Spanish. However, neither the word gravy or sauce is Italian but Italian-American and both were adopted, depending on preference, by Italians immigrating to America. Despite the passionate protest of people on either side of the discussion, such a debate probably does not exist in Italy and seems to be centered in the Mid-Atlantic Italian-American community. Gravy, to be clear, is an English word. Just why it came to be used by Italian-Americans, we cannot be certain. It is neither correct nor incorrect but is simply a matter of upbringing and preference.
Gravy may have simply fit the bill for Italian emigrants describing something that started with meat drippings and was slow-cooked with different meats, tomato, etc. Much is made of this staple of the Sunday dinner “not being a simple condiment.” Well, the English word sauce does not refer, at all times, to a simple condiment, either. However, one possible reason for the adoption of the word gravy, and the reason I bring it up here is that the word gravy did indeed refer to a sense of plenty, in America. Author David Gentilcore brought this up as one idea among many in his book Pomodoro!: A History of the Tomato in Italy, where you can read more about the possible origins of the word gravy for Italian-American meat-based tomato sauce.
Origin of ‘Gravy Train’
Regardless of whether you think of gravy as a rich meat-based tomato sauce, or, as do most Americans, as a thick brown sauce made from pan drippings, especially good with biscuits, there is no disputing that we all love our gravy. In the early twentieth century, the word gravy came to mean “easy money.” This sometimes meant easy profits resulting from just plain old good luck, but it also could refer to easy, but ill-gotten gains, especially through conning your way into it.
Gravy could also refer to any unexpected benefit, or poker winnings, and conversely, to a prison sentence, especially a harsh one, as in in the phrase “dish out the gravy” to mean deliver a harsh sentence.
When you combine gravy with train, then, you get the idea of easy money that keeps on coming in, with little effort on your part. It doesn’t stop, just like a train. We could leave it at that and feel pretty certain that we understand the origins of gravy train, but it turns out that the term actually originated with railroad workers of the 1920’s, who used it to mean an easy but high paying run.
Riding the Gravy Train
Pink Floyd used the phrase “riding the gravy train” in their song Have a Cigar, in regards to, ostensibly, record executives or other music industry hanger-owns urging the band to capitalize on the success of a previous hit for “easy money” and, perhaps, to the record company itself “getting a free ride.”
In the 1970’s, truck drivers had a similar expression. A gravy hauler was a truck driver who would only drive high-paying runs.
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