Sunday, 22 October 2006

On gravy

The chef of River Cottage recently said that he still hasn't decided what the best word for gravy is: “…I can't stand jus." Just the sort of remark one might expect from someone with a name like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

What’s wrong with "gravy", for God’s sake?

The OED says that the word is of obscure origin, but goes on at length:
“...prob. cogn. with OF grain ‘anything used in cooking’ and with grenade, grenadine; cf. also faus grenon = gravy bastard [an inferior imitation of the real stuff]”...
and ends, rather feebly:
“…the most probable conclusion is that the OF grané was early misread as gravé, and in that form became current as a term of English cookery”.

It crops up sometimes as a synonym for undeserved wealth. There’s the gravy train, of course, and one version of She Was Pure But She Was Honest has “It’s the rich what gets the gravy...”

One of the warmest and most endearing of Stan and Ollie’s films was Laughing Gravy: not much of a plot, just the two of them, a landlord and the eponymous dog.

A young chef of my acquaintance sometimes cooks for a retirement home. His haute cuisine is much appreciated, and they want him to do it all the time: “He makes such lovely gravy!”

There are many references to gravy in Dickens. Scrooge accused Marley’s ghost of being merely a bad dream caused by indigestion:
"… an undigested bit of beef… a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!".

And in Martin Chuzzlewit, Mrs Todger, the proprietress of Todger’s boarding house, explains to the Misses Pecksniff the reason for the deterioration in her looks:
“Presiding over an establishment like this makes sad havoc with the features… The gravy alone is enough to add twenty years to one's age, I do assure you… The anxiety of that one item, my dears, keeps the mind continually upon the stretch. There is no such passion in human nature as the passion for gravy among commercial gentlemen”.

It’s an important thing, gravy, and a lovely word. To be treasured, conjured with, and certainly not to be lightly tossed aside by the pretentious.

Wikipedia has a great deal of information on gravy and describes some exotic versions, e.g. . Redeye gravy, made from the drippings of ham fried in a skillet; the pan is deglazed with coffee. This gravy is a staple of Southern U.S. cuisine and is usually served over ham, grits or biscuits.

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