There appears to be nothing redemptive about what’s left in Walter Royal’s smoldering pan. Just a puddle of grease shining against the blue-black of his grandmother’s cast-iron skillet. But look closer. See the speckles? Those bits are the salty detritus left after scalding country ham, remnants that bear the same flavor as the funk that hangs in the air, laden with a brackish umami. The word “deglaze” does not come to mind, not unless a good portion of that fat is first siphoned elsewhere, and adding coffee to the pan seems an impossible way to create anything worth eating.
But as Royal, executive chef at The Angus Barn in Raleigh, adds the black brew — just a tight pour — into the drippings, the quick sizzle and a furious scrape of the skillet bottom creates an emulsion, however fleeting, and Royal wastes no time in pouring the concoction known as redeye gravy over the rest of his breakfast. The cheese grits deserve this sauce, which does no harm when it also runs loose and pools around the buttered biscuits, the fried eggs, and a few hunks of the country ham that gave birth to this dish in the first place.
One taste and you realize that there was, indeed, something redemptive left at the bottom of that pan.
You might even thank the Lord, or whomever it is you thank when something lovely transpires, that someone, somewhere, thought to throw leftover coffee into a hot skillet full of ham grease, and then scrape up the salty bits into this liquid that tastes, simply, brown. Salty, dark, brown. This is not a bad thing — brown is where the flavor is. Salt and fat are the backbone of flavor. Some might even consider redeye gravy the soy sauce of the South.
But there’s something deeper to consider.
“What do we taste?” asks Marcie Ferris, associate professor of American Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region, due in September. “We really taste place.”
How is it that this dish has persisted beyond the age when coffee was made with the same grounds throughout the week, and cured ham was what provided sustenance through the lean winter months? How is it that redeye gravy has endured?
Though it’s not exactly common on menus, you can still find redeye at places like Mrs. Wenger’s in Sanford, a third-generation-owned proudly greasy spoon where redeye is considered a complementary condiment — just ask for it — or down the street at Landmark Restaurant, where a thicker, even saltier version awaits. In Wilmington, it’s served at the Sawmill Restaurant as a side for $2.75, presented in a big, thick coffee mug with a piece of country ham floating inside.
You can also find it these days peeking at you from dishes that cost nearly 10 times as much — and for good reason — for in this application it is called a redeye jus, and it complements the smoked Whitman Farm’s pork chop, Anson Mill’s grit cakes (made with cream cheese and Asiago-like Calvander from Chapel Hill Creamery), sautéed Italian chard, Cottle Farms asparagus, green garlic, and fresh ramps.
This is how Executive Chef Ben Adams presents his take on redeye at Piedmont in Durham. His Southern roots run deep and wide. He grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, then attended UNC as a Morehead Scholar before returning to his hometown to cook at Hominy Grill and McCrady’s — two of the hottest restaurants in the collective South. Adams came back to the Triangle to take the helm at Piedmont, known for its elevated interpretation of Southern, farm-to-table fare, and it didn’t take him long to come up with an homage to redeye. He did this even though he only really ate the gravy at his grandparents’ home in Virginia, where it was (get ready) made with bacon instead of country ham. Piedmont smokes its chops on site, and the aroma harkened back to Adams’s grandparents’ home. One culinary memory led to another, and his redeye jus was born.
But back to the bacon. Some will argue that this ingredient invalidates its claim as redeye, that only the browned bits from country ham will result in a true redeye, but you only have to ask two people about this dish to understand that there are as many versions of redeye in the world as there are coffee beans. Adams’s version at Piedmont is prepared with sautéed country ham, scrap and bones from the smoked pork chop, mirepoix, red wine, veal stock, sherry vinegar, and coffee to taste.
Does it still count? Well, that’s a matter of opinion.
“I’ve seen versions where people put flour in it — but I draw the line there,” says Chapel Hill food writer Sheri Castle. “That is not redeye gravy.”
When Royal ate redeye growing up in Alabama, his family added bourbon to help smooth out the finicky sauce, a gravy that has no starch to bind it. According to Castle, it is called a gravy because it was skillet-born. In her five-part series on gravy for the Southern Foodways Alliance earlier this year, Castle noted that any sauce made in a skillet was deemed gravy no matter how thin or thick it ran, how salty or sweet it tasted. Royal opts for whiskey — just a splash at the end, after the coffee has done most of the work. His grandmother’s redeye was not as dependent upon liquor as his. He insists he lacks her patience, and he swears the whiskey helps the sauce hold without breaking, at least long enough to be poured atop the rest of the plate. As is the case when people talk about food, particularly a food they have feelings about, Royal shares more than a recipe. He reveals that his grandmother was illiterate but smart, that she fed a lot with little, that hers was a life where every bit of every thing mattered.
All of which gets to the heart of redeye: Its endurance is a story of culinary desperation, a dish that was born out of the need to make use of every last bit, be it the few drips left over from the precious coffee grounds — coffee was and is one of the rare crops that cannot be grown in the South, meaning it was bought or bartered for and therefore precious — or the fat rendered from the cured ham that got many a Carolina family through the winter.
Redeye gravy is more than a dish; it’s an ode, a love song to a personal olfactory memory — the smell of ham frying, of coffee long-brewed. It’s an edible sonnet to the Southerners who came before.
“I didn’t get very excited about redeye gravy as a child,” Adams says, “mostly because I was more excited about eating the largemouth bass we would catch in the pond on my grandparents’ farm for breakfast. And I also didn’t begin to enjoy the taste of coffee until well into my college years. But the smell of bacon, coffee, and smoke in my grandparents’ kitchen is one of the most powerful in my memory, and I think part of this dish is an attempt to recapture a part of that.”
When making redeye, what’s surprising is how little it yields per skillet. But maybe that’s for the best. This is a polarizing condiment. Many a mixed-household exists, and a preference — or aversion — might be categorized as belonging to those who like salty foods, and those who don’t. And there are those who tolerate it — it seems the nostalgia of redeye can transcend something as rational as flavor and balance.
“A lot of it would be hell,” Castle says. “It’s very abrasive, it’s very salty, it’s very acidic. And if you’re describing it to someone, it sounds awful.”
Perhaps this is why so many younger chefs have tried a modern take on this meal.
Adams is not alone in his creative rendering of a simple, Southern icon. Chef Vivian Howard, owner of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, serves a redeye jus on her elevated Southern menu as well, though she remembers hating the sauce as a child. Somehow, even in her eastern North Carolina home, where rice and sausage were staples, redeye gravy managed to make its way onto her family’s table, much like the annoying dinner guest who might pop over at the first whiff of something special roasting in the oven.
This past winter, Howard braised rabbit in a redeye made with smoked pork stock, country ham, a ham bone, coffee, and onion. Chef Jason Smith, of 18 Seaboard, Cantina 18, and Harvest 18 in the Triangle, loved the redeye his grandmothers made on Sundays, and he went so far as to create a redeye sauce for soft-shell crab this spring, even replacing the coffee with sweet tea.
This might make someone like John Egerton, the legendary Southern food writer and historian, turn over in his grave. As he noted in the 1980s in his book Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee were the redeye hotbeds of the South. At one time, cured hams were more common in the mountains than they were near the shore, though that truth has (fortunately) changed as roads from Appalachia to the Outer Banks have conjoined, perhaps even conspired, to enlighten our collective palates.
North Carolina — a state not of large landowners but of small farmers, farmers who worked long, hard days, who would relish something salty and fatty, and respect it for the use it made out of what had already been so hard earned — would surely have embraced a dish that provided such sustenance.
Food historians agree that redeye gravy is decidedly Southern. Its origins, though, remain a mystery. But perhaps more effort has been put into an explanation, or justification, depending on your taste, to make sense of this dish than most. That Andrew Jackson ordered his cook, who had been out late indulging in moonshine, to bring him gravy as red as the cook’s hung-over peepers is likely a tale and nothing more.
Food historians like Ferris and Castle conjecture that what most likely happened was a mountain mama needed to clean out a hot cast-iron skillet after cooking some country ham — the meat of the masses, the meat of the poor — and she used what was in reach: old coffee. The result was tasty enough to spread from the mountains to the east, toward grits-and-sausage territory. In its early iterations, redeye simply involved ham grease and water. Coffee was a step up, and considering the complexity that can be found in coffee — in many ways as sophisticated a deglazing agent, and as acidic, as wine — it’s no surprise that coffee is considered the other, equal half of a redeye recipe.
But be not mistaken. This moniker has little to do with the bloodshot eyes of too much coffee and too little sleep. The auburn sheen of the dish comes from the ham. It glimmers, round on the fatty surface of a bowl of still redeye, a sauce slightly broken, and resembles just that — an eye, angry and red, perhaps irritated that it has yet to be eaten.
Chef & the Farmer
120 West Gordon Street
Kinston, N.C. 28501
129 West Main Street
Sanford, N.C. 27332
Mrs. Wenger’s Restaurant
105 Charlotte Avenue
Sanford, N.C. 27330
401 Foster Street
Durham, N.C. 27701
UPDATE (May 13, 2015): Ben Adams announced that he is leaving his executive chef post at Piedmont Restaurant to open a new barbecue restaurant in North Durham. Read more at INDY Week.