Red Gravy by elIzabet h m. WIllIams Not Forgotten

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.
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
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
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
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.
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