The word sopped rarely sounds appealing. But when it’s perched beside the words biscuit and red-eye gravy, magic happens. Perhaps that’s why so many Southerners choose to eat their biscuits sopped, or dipped, in this reddish condiment made from country ham drippings and strong black coffee.
There are many theories on the name’s origin, and the term “red-eye gravy” is likely not related to its caffeinated character. One legend features President Andrew Jackson reprimanding his hung-over cook by asking for a country ham with gravy as red as his eyes. More likely is that the name refers to the gravy’s preparation and presentation. After pan-frying a country ham, cooks deglaze their skillets using strong coffee. The resulting mixture, which molecularly mimics oil and water, separates once poured into a bowl. As the liquids settle, the dark coffee forms a “pupil” that the ham juice surrounds like a red, glassy cornea. Add in some chile, and you’ve got an even fiercer-looking red eye.
As with most culinary crafts, Southerners serve up their ham and red-eye gravy several ways, sometimes thickened with flour or mixed with mustard and ketchup. Described by one writer as a “divine elixir,” it’s not the healthiest condiment out there, but when you’re served a slab of country ham on a biscuit the size of a cat’s head, it seems only proper to give it the topping it deserves.
Need to Know
Red-eye gravy has as many origin stories as it has ways to serve it. So don’t be surprised if you see different versions across the Southern United States, including gravies made with chicory instead of coffee or served with roast beef instead of ham. There are even some purists who swear that red-eye gravy should come solely from ham juice with no addition of coffee.