Biscuit

My Grandmother’s Genius Biscuits & Gravy (Starring Pork Belly, Eggs)

May  4, 2016

Are you ready for this, gravy lovers? The best biscuits and gravy are not made from sausage, despite what every diner menu and blog peddling comfort food will tell you.

But you, you're in luck: Today is the day you learn about a much finer gravy to pour over biscuits—a rich, milky, Oklahoma-bred gravy with a few genius curveballs.

You can thank my grandmother—a fierce, funny, beautiful, 94-year-old hell-raiser named Grace Cowan. Or I can thank her for you, because she's probably at bingo right now.

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Of course I'm biased. I grew up eating my grandmother's biscuits and gravy just about every weekend, as if the meal were as commonplace as blueberry pancakes or oatmeal. But after being disappointed for years, every time I tried to get my fix in a restaurant, eventually I realized how special her way was.

Grandmother, Billy, and me. Outfits courtesy 1987.

The first secret to her success was fresh side, which is also called "side pork" (or "side meat" if you're in The Grapes of Wrath) and it's really just slices of uncured bacon.

Since the mid-aughts, you probably also know fresh side as pork belly. Technically, fresh side might (?) come from the meatier area higher up on the side of the pig than the belly (and the real deal comes with the skin, or "rind," still attached). But anything uncured and in the vicinity of the side or belly will do the job, which is helpful because finding anything labeled "fresh side" is increasingly challenging—probably because it's usually snatched up to become bacon, its less perishable, much more popular cured alter ego.

To turn fresh side (or pork belly) into gravy, Grandmother would salt, pepper, and dredge the slices in flour, then shallow-fry them in vegetable oil (this was how she cooked pretty much everything). Both the browned bits of flour and the oil itself take on that familiar, happy flavor of crispy carnitas or a handsomely seared pork chop.

And, unlike with sausage gravy, you get a side dish out of it: Those crunchy strips of fresh side get fished out and served on the side, the salty crackle to balance against all the soft.

There's one more surprising trick in her gravy, which she credits to my late grandpa: scrambled eggs. These bits give the gravy more substance and sweetness, and don't overcook like you'd think eggs simmered in gravy would (apparently the solution to tough scrambled eggs was a cushion of flour, porky oil, and milk—who knew?).

My brother has instead tried slow-scrambling eggs and folding them into the gravy at the end, but—and I say this with love—he's got it all wrong. A little contrast in texture here is a good thing.

I have to give you one caveat. This isn't exactly Grandmother's recipe—because she didn't really use them. This recipe is based on what she told me over several phone calls in 2009 and 2010, as I got ready to write about her in a compilation called Storied Dishes. I've tested it over the years, confirming that it tastes almost like the real thing.

But I wish—all the time—that I'd taken videos of her cooking this herself, before she lost the ability to walk on her own and to get around the kitchen. I wish I could watch her make this meal again through muscle memory, the way that I roast potatoes or squeeze a lemon over a salad. Because when I make it, it's never perfect.

Grandmother served this breakfast flawlessly every time, the way I remember. Her biscuits—which she made by mixing Bisquick and milk without measuring, then dunking the cut biscuits in oil—always came out hot and evenly golden, never dry or flat. Her gravy was never too thick or too thin. It was always served hot, and never ran out. Her fresh side was never tough or burnt.

She was a fearless cook—maybe because she'd been making the same things for decades, or because she knew what she liked, or just because she couldn't be bothered to worry about it. I want to be just like her in the kitchen when I grow up, and I hope that will mean the biscuits and gravy will be as they should.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by James Ransom

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5 Comments

bird O. July 5, 2016
Neither one of my grandmothers enjoyed cooking. They actually stunk at all attempts. This was a joy to read. Thank you for sharing this. Treasure your granny!
 
Sandy W. May 5, 2016
Yes! I grew up eating gravy made with fatback, which was rendered over low heat (always in a black iron skillet) without any additional oil or fat to a light golden color, then removed from the pan and drained, either to be crumbled and added back to the gravy or saved for later to be eaten in a biscuit. Side meat or streak-o-lean was usually reserved for cooking vegetables and dried beans. What I wouldn't give for one of my grandmother's biscuits with gravy and a fatback "treat!" I love King Arthur flour for all other breadmaking, but I require White Lily, from soft Southern wheat, to make a decent biscuit. My grandmother always used Red Band, sadly no longer available.
 
luvcookbooks May 4, 2016
I am always looking for the perfect gravy and biscuits recipe, although I never had them growing up. This one sounds really good, thanks!
 
marco.north May 4, 2016
Honestly, one of the best articles/recipes/stories I have seen here. I am a tough person to impress and you really got me. Bravo.
 
Susan M. May 4, 2016
Thank you for this! Mis4