Southern red-eye gravy (or redeye) is really just the essence of fried country ham mixed with brewed coffee. Sometimes, a simple ham gravy made from ham drippings, but without the coffee, is also called red-eye gravy. Some Southerner’s claim that true red-eye gravy doesn’t use coffee, but in either case, it is usually served over the ham that was used to make it. A bit of clove is sometimes used, and other ingredients might be added to more “upscale” red-eye. This is not a thickened gravy. There is no flour roux or other thickening agent added and the gravy is a fairly thin sauce.
Red-eye gravy is a favorite in some parts of the South, eaten for breakfast along with some biscuits for sopping up the gravy, and some fried eggs and grits, of course. Red-eye gravy is also served over grits.
Other names for red-eye gravy are poor man’s gravy, bottom sop, red ham gravy, bird-eye gravy, or just ham gravy.
Red-eye gravy is not much different in tradition than a typical gravy of the Southern poor that uses pan drippings and flour to make a brown gravy sometimes called sawmill gravy. It is also called flour gravy, and in parts of Kentucky, poor-do (meaning “a little something the poor make do with).
Southern gravies of this sort might be made with whatever drippings are available from whatever meat was cooked. Bacon drippings, ham drippings, or even sausage or chicken drippings might be used. Flour would be cooked in the drippings to form a brown roux and then liquid such as water or milk added to make a rich and satisfying gravy, popular with biscuits or even just spooned over slices of white bread (I ate this often as a child).
Other than the use of flour to make a thickening roux, red-eye gravy is not much different from these types of gravy. Some people might call the same thing white gravy or cream gravy, depending on how much the flour is browned. The cream gravy used for sausage gravy and biscuits is essentially this type of gravy, and of course, in this instance, the rendered fat from country sausage is used as the base. There is basically no difference between this and the French béchamel sauce, except for the use of various pan drippings, which impart a rich flavor to the sauce (See béchamel and other French Mother sauces). The term Sawmill gravy has been attributed to the Appalachian logging camps where this type of gravy served with biscuits was a typical worker’s breakfast. The origins of the name of red-eye gravy are not as clear.
Origin of Red-Eye Gravy
Two theories of the origin of red-eye have to do with the fat in the gravy, which fails to form a stable emulsion with the liquid. The ham drippings form numerous small droplets which, some say, resemble little red eyes. As the gravy sits, however, the fat forms a single translucent circle on top, surrounded by a darker, liquid non-fat part on the bottom, making the whole thing look like a big red eye.
A more creative explanation traces the name to U.S. general and President Andrew Jackson or “Old Hickory.” This story has it that when Jackson was still a general, he asked his cook to make his lunch. The cook had been helping himself to liberal doses of moonshine, Southern corn whiskey or “white mule.” Observing the cook’s bloodshot eyes, General Jackson instructed him to bring some country ham with a gravy as red as his eyes. Hence the name red-eye became attached to ham gravy.
Making Red-eye Gravy
To make red-eye gravy, you need a thick slice of country ham like a real Virginia ham or Smithfield ham. It is best to have a piece with plenty of fat still around the edges because you need this fat to render off and provide the drippings, and flavor, for the gravy. If your ham is leaner, you can start with a bit of bacon grease or a few tablespoons of lard. You can, of course, choose both a fatty ham and the additional fat, if you would like. Fry one to two large slices of ham in a large skillet until the ham is well done and nicely browned, fat has melted off into the pan, and with bits of stuck on crust have formed on the pan’s bottom. Remove the ham and place on a serving plate. Add 3/4 to one cup of brewed coffee to the pan drippings and scraps the bottom of the pan as the liquid heats. Boil for around 5 minutes, while stirring, and spoon over the ham or cooked grits.
Be aware that some Southerners will tell you to use water and to just add a teaspoon or so of coffee to the gravy. If you used ground coffee, this would, of course, result in some unpleasantness, with bitter, gritty coffee grinds in your gravy. However, a lot of Southerners will say coffee when they mean instant coffee, the two being pretty much interchangeable. So, translate “a teaspoon of coffee” to “a teaspoon of instant coffee powder.”