Gravy. Maybe.

November 29th, 2018

Shiny and new is nice, but seasoned to last.

As published in The Daily Memphian, November 30, 2018

Cast Iron Skillet


I’ve been part of the breakfast cooking team at my church for decades, and for the first 20 years or so I stood next to Dr. Fred Sage. Fred did sausage gravy. I did eggs, 72 at a time.

Fred was a surgeon, professionally an orthopedic surgeon, but he was a surgeon with that gravy, too. He’d start with a few pieces of sausage in the seasoned cast iron skillet, pressing each piece down to grease the surface as he told me about making house calls when he was a general physician, turning down the fire and breaking up the sausage as he told me another story, adding the milk, enough milk, scalding it some, not too much … and sifting in the flour, enough flour … the measure of these things in touch and in time, over the course of a joke maybe two, then stirring, always stirring. Then salt. Then pepper. Then taste. Then taking the sausage tray from the oven and pouring a little of the grease in the skillet. Then stirring, always stirring. Then taste. “Did I tell you about the time…”  No hurry. If it made, it made. If it didn’t, it would be a mess.

Fred’s gravy was never a mess.

Memphis is trying for gravy.

We made a trench out of Danny Thomas Blvd. for the center of the skillet 60 years ago and it seems Kevin Adams has a billion-dollar lid called Union Row planned for it. Or is Emily Neff planning to cook it up on top of the whole city block between Union and Monroe, stirring, always stirring, until it becomes a new Brooks museum with an aquarium on the side? Or has Carol Coletta returned home to stir, always stir, something homemade up all along the riverfront? Or is there enough salt and pepper in the promise of St. Jude’s billions in research and development to stir, always stir, and transform everything north. 

Meanwhile, the city has stuck a couple of spoons in with a promise to let New York developers take a bite out of Civic Center Plaza to build a Loews Convention Center Hotel and also turning up the heat on a $150 million recipe for the Fairgrounds. The three families that own the Sterick Building lots and the two entities who own the land lease are suddenly pulling it out of the refrigerator to see if they can warm it up. We are boiling over in boutique hotels and apartments and breweries, and Kevin Kane has fired up “When The Saints Go Marching In” again.

And it’s been a couple of weeks, so Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer are probably about to open another restaurant somewhere, and Richard Smith is on EDGE.

You might say there are suddenly a lot of new cooks in this kitchen. And a lot of rattling of pots and pans.

“Easy,” Fred would say, “don’t stir too fast, not too much flour, don’t over season.”

Sausage gravy is basic food, nothing fancy, but there’s not much better or more filling or more able to go a long ways in a town so rich in spirit but poor in fact. Let’s be sure of our ingredients and of a steady hand.

If not, we’re just going to make a mess.

I’m a Memphian, and we’re going to need some biscuits to go with all that, too.

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