Not Forgotten Red Gravy b y E l i za b e t h M . W i l l i a m s When I was very young, living in New Orleans, Sunday dinner at Big Nana’s was chicken cacciatore or pasta e fagioli or veal Bolognese. There was always an array of olive salad, stuffed artichokes, caponata, fava beans, and seasonal treats. My Nana and her eight sisters and brothers and many of their children, including my mother, chattered in Sicilian as we cooked and ate and cleaned up. Big Nana died when I was about four or five, and Sunday dinner, on a reduced basis, moved to Nana’s house. Elisabetta Lecce, my Nana, was born in Palermo, Sicily. She immigrated to New Orleans with her parents and several of her siblings at the turn of the twentieth century, part of the larger Sicilian migration to the city. She was eighteen years old when she stepped off the boat, an adult Sicilian woman, but she was young enough to adapt to her new home. The family cooked familiar food and lived within the community of Sicilians and Albanians in the city. She continued to speak Sicilian as she learned English. Big Papa and my Nana’s brothers were “When I was very young, living in New Orleans, Sunday dinner at the home of Big Nana was chicken cacciatore or pasta e fagioli or veal Bolognese. There was always an array of olive salad, stuffed artichokes, caponata, fava beans, and seasonal treats. My Nana and her eight sisters and brothers and many of their children, including my mother (as a child here, c. 1921), chattered in Sicilian as we cooked and ate and cleaned up. Photograph courtesy of the author. 133 butchers, and they quickly had to learn the local foodways in order to survive. The family learned about red beans and rice and oyster soup, and when Nana moved to her own place after her mother died her Sunday dinner was less Sicilian and more New Orleans in menu and scope—more intimate and less raucous. Despite her adoption of many of the foodways of New Orleans, however, Nana drew the line at red gravy. Red gravy, at least in our family’s parlance, is not Italian tomato sauce. Red gravy is the creolized version of tomato sauce that New Orleanians serve over spaghetti. Being Creole, it naturally starts with a roux and bears no relationship— beyond tomatoes—to Italian sauce. It is something different, something independent, something that has emerged as new. Considering that Nana accepted other foods, it is curious that red gravy was the deviation that symbolized disloyalty and disdain. Had it not been served on spaghetti and then topped with cheese in clear imitation of Italian tomato sauce (with perhaps the implication that it was an improvement), red gravy could have been seen as a new dish, part of New Orleans cuisine. Like changes in language fought by purists, I was witness to the insinuation of Sicilian foodways into the cuisine of New Orleans. Today, these dishes exist on every Creole menu and food historians include these foods in the grammar of New Orleans dishes—muffuletta sandwiches, Italian sausage po’ boys, meatball po’ boys, stuffed artichokes, ices and snowballs, and red gravy. My family was not alone in its scorn for red gravy. All self-respecting Sicilians disdained red gravy. It was a measure of connection to the heritage and culture of the old world and a hesitation to become fully committed to the culture of the new world in which they found themselves. They could embrace red beans and rice, a thing so foreign that it represented the new without giving up the old. But red gravy required an admission that the very culture itself had changed, not that they had merely incorporated the new. This New World vegetable, the pomo d’oro, was introduced into Europe and thus Sicily in the sixteenth century. The people of southern Italy and Sicily adopted the vegetable in earnest and earlier than many other peoples of Europe, and this New World import became so important, almost iconic, to the cuisine that even today we identify tomato sauce with things Italian. The people of New Orleans commonly used the tomato in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries— the local variety is even called a Creole tomato—so it was not the Sicilians who brought it back to the city. In those older recipes it was cooked with a roux, but the sauce no more than an accompaniment to a protein and usually served over rice. What the Sicilians did was to make the Creole cook rethink the Creole sauce and serve that tomato sauce the way Sicilians did: over spaghetti. Unlike Sicilians, however, who consider pasta and sauce to be of equal importance, Creole cooks emphasized red gravy and continued to treat the spaghetti as a mere carrier for 134 sout hern cultures, Winter 2009 : Elizabeth M. Williams “I can eat red gravy without guilt on meatball po’ boys. My Big Nana (Francesca Paola Gambino Lecce, front right), my Nana (Elisabetta Lecce Baiamonte, front left), and my mother ( Josephine Rose Baiamonte Williams, behind) are all dead, and now I can admit without repercussions that I like it . . . just not on spaghetti.” Photograph courtesy of the author. sauce, as rice was a carrier for other Creole sauces. Sicilian influence likely also contributed to the use of canned Italian tomatoes in Creole red gravy, an irony given the quality tomatoes grown locally. Although red gravy is strongly influenced by Italian tomato sauce, its roux base and versatility as a sauce make it a true New Orleans dish. I still love Nana’s Italian tomato sauce. It is one of my comfort foods. But I have come to enjoy and appreciate red gravy. I am the last vestige of my family’s immigrant experience embodied in the transition of foodways. I experienced both versions of red blankets over spaghetti as heritage foods. My children have little or no identification, besides the intellectual one, with Italy or Sicily. They are from New Orleans. They have never lived in conflict over loyalties represented by red gravy. They eat both with pleasure. I can eat red gravy without guilt on meatball po’ boys. My Big Nana, my Nana, and my mother are all dead, and now I can admit without repercussions that I like it . . . just not on spaghetti. Nana’s Basic Tomato Sauce 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil 1 anchovy, mashed 3 large onions, finely chopped 5 cloves garlic, minced Not Forgotten 135 1 stalk celery, minced 2 carrots, grated 1 small can tomato paste 5 pounds tomatoes, put through a food mill or 3 large cans crushed Italian tomatoes 1 cup red wine 2 bay leaves, whole 2 tbs. dried oregano Juice and zest of half a lemon Salt and pepper to taste Heat oil in a large pot with a heavy bottom. Slowly sauté anchovy until it dissolves. Sauté onions, garlic, celery, and carrots until very soft. Add tomato paste and continue cooking until caramelized. Add the tomatoes, wine, and bay leaves. Stir. Cover and simmer for at least an hour. (Cooking time for fresh tomatoes is longer.) Continue simmering uncovered to allow to thicken. Add oregano, zest, and lemon juice. Cook 15 minutes and serve over spaghetti. Grate ParmigianoReggiano over the whole. Creole Red Gravy 1/4 cup bacon grease 1/4 cup flour 1 onion, chopped 1 clove garlic, minced 2 stalks celery, chopped 1 green bell pepper, chopped 3 scallions, chopped 3 cans tomato sauce 1/4 cup chopped parsley 1 tsp dried thyme 1 tsp Louisiana hot sauce (or more to taste) Salt and pepper to taste Heat bacon grease in a large pot with a heavy bottom. Slowly sauté flour, stirring constantly, until it is the color of café au lait. Add onions and garlic. As they soften, add the celery, bell pepper, and scallions. When the vegetables are soft, add the tomato sauce. Stir. Simmer for about an hour. Add parsley, thyme, and hot sauce to taste. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve over spaghetti with grated Italian cheese. 136 sout hern cultures, Winter 2009 : Elizabeth M. Williams About the Contributors Whitney E. Brown is a graduate student in Folklore at the University of North Carolina. Her primary field of research is resurgent popular interest in traditional and regional foodways of the South. She spends the rest of her time baking and working for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. American City, 1780–1830 and The Stolen House. He has published essays, lectured, and offered courses on visual and material culture, architectural history, self-taught and vernacular art, foodways, and seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century material life. John T. Edge is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. A contributing editor to the Oxford American and Gourmet, he writes a monthly column, “United Tastes,” for the New York Times. He also has written or edited more than a dozen books, including the Foodways volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Beth A. Latshaw is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received the Center for the Study of the American South’s Summer Research Grant in 2005, the UNC Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2009, and UNC’s Paul C. Hardin Dissertation Fellowship for 2009–2010. Elizabeth Engelhardt is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. Her most recent book is Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket. She is finishing A Mess of Greens: Southern Food and Gender. While researching tomato clubs, she discovered she is the great-grandniece of a Quebec, North Carolina, Canning Club member. Michael McFee teaches poetry writing and directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has published nine books of poems (most recently The Smallest Talk), a collection of essays (The Napkin Manuscripts), and three anthologies, including The Language They Speak Is Things to Eat: Poems by Fifteen Contemporary North Carolina Poets. Amy C. Evans is the oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance. She has stood in pig lots in Cajun Country, behind bars (cocktail bars, that is) in Louisville, and on oyster skiffs in the Apalachicola Bay to collect the stories behind the food. Amy is also an exhibiting artist. She appreciates a good meringue and can never eat too many oysters. Kathleen Purvis is food editor of The Charlotte Observer, chair of the James Beard Foundation’s book award committee, and a member of both the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Association of Food Journalists. Marcie Cohen Ferris is an Associate Professor in the American Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research and teaching interests include the history of the Jewish South, food in American culture, American Jewish women’s history, and the material culture of the American South. She is the author of Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South and co-editor of Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History. She recently served as president of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Bernard L. Herman is the George B. Tindall Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His books include Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early Mary Ann Sternberg, a freelance journalist and nonfiction author, has served as a panelist at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and the Louisiana Festival for the Book and as a speaker at the Mississippi River Heritage Conference. Drew A. Swanson is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Georgia and a fellow of the Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History in Savannah. Among other places, his writing on the southern environment has appeared in Appalachian Journal and Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Elizabeth M. Williams is President of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Her writing centers on legal and policy issues related to food and foodways. She consults on issues of nonprofit management and intellectual property. 137 Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
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