Gravy

December 27, 2009

Food figures big-time in the holiday mentality, whether it’s Christmas, Hanukah or Kwanza being celebrated around this time of the year or Ramadan, Thanksgiving or Chinese New Year at some other time. The centerpiece for the Thompson family feast this week was a turkey raised by FFA students at Springport High School. Only three of the five of us ate turkey, as two are vegetarians. We try to blend some tradition (which calls for turkey or ham) with the needs and values that each of us bring to the table as individuals. In fact, preparation and clean-up are just as important as the eating, and in those phases we are especially mindful of not putting our vegetarian family members in direct contact with the roasted bird.

I have to admit being weak on clean-up. My personal style would be to let the mess sit for an hour or two while we enjoy the afterglow of a satisfying meal, but Diane is just not built that way. Our dinner is followed almost immediately by a cleaning and dish-doing frenzy in which I do well merely to get a few things from the table into the kitchen. But I’m definitely involved in preparation. Like lots of men, I usually carve the turkey, but I’m in there on the cooking, too. My specialties are mashed potatoes and turkey gravy. I was always self-appointed chair of the mashed potato committee when our church in Texas sponsored Thanksgiving dinners for A&M students and young faculty who were spending the holiday far from their usual family connections. (I should probably have that on my resume.) This year’s family edition was whipped up from Thornapple new potatoes that came in well before season’s end. As members know, they are too small to peel, but we’ve grown to like mashed potatoes with the peels whipped right in. The vegetarians in the crowd forget all about turkey when they have my peel-enhanced mashed potatoes to chew on.

Of course the traditionalists expect some gravy, too. I learned to make gravy from my Nana, and I do it pretty darn well if I say so myself. You start out by mixing a couple of tablespoons of flour in with about a third of a cup of milk with a fork. If you whip it vigorously, you will not have lumpy gravy. Then you add a couple more cups of milk (buttermilk or water, if that’s your taste), stir well and pour it into a frying pan where you have put the drippings from the turkey. This year’s turkey was not overly fat, but if you buy one that has had butter or vegetable oil injected into it, you will need to separate the actual drippings from the excess fat that will be in the bottom of the roasting pan, not to mention coating the ceiling and every other surface in the kitchen. I must say, an FFA turkey has quite a bit going for it, even if it is not quite as moist as the proverbial butterball. The drippings go into that ordinary frying pan with the milk and flour mixture, where they are cooked on a medium high heat. Add some salt and pepper to taste, but don’t stop stirring the mixture even for a second.

This takes patience. Also, a fork with a long handle. You could well be stirring for four or five minutes before the gravy starts to thicken. Then all of a sudden the two liquids will start to bind, and instead of having two distinct substances streaked through one another, you will have one, and it will be some very good gravy. If it gets too thick, you can add water, but not too much. And (again I stress) don’t stop stirring while you do it. It will take a little practice to get the proportions of flour, water/milk and drippings just right, and since if you are like me you don’t do this but once or twice a year, you may be forty five before you get it right. But as I head into advanced age this has gotten to be almost second nature for me. Except that at this year’s Thanksgiving my technique was complicated by the presence of diners who need a gluten and lactose free diet. The flour is thus obviously a problem, and so is the milk. So I am cajoled into making my famous turkey gravy with lactose-free milk and with corn starch instead of flour.

Now friends I must tell you, it just ain’t the same. You can stand there and stir drippings, lactose-free milk and corn starch until hell freezes over, but those drippings are never going to bind. The corn starch will make the milk as thick as grade school paste, but the grease will just float on top like an oil slick from the Exxon Valdez. Now what am I, as a professor of food and community ethics, supposed to make of this? Here’s my conclusion: Food works for community. Cooking together, eating together and cleaning up together builds togetherness, as much through the nuisances as through the pleasurable moments. We shouldn’t let that power for community become something that divides us, so we need to figure out a way to configure those meals so that vegetarians, as well as lactose and gluten intolerant individuals can be participants. But that doesn’t mean that they should expect to eat every dish that’s set on the table, and it damn sure means that they should not expect to be eating any gravy.

Thankfully, by Christmas things were back to normal and the gravy turned out fine. Community needs to cut both ways, and while we traditionalists shouldn’t be intolerant of those with different values and different needs, there also needs to be some tolerance for special foods that our grandparents taught us how to cook. At least once or twice a year.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agriculture, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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