When we go south to visit friends and family I look forward to three specialties of southern cooks: Barbecue, grits and sausage gravy. Today you can find pretty good barbecue throughout the United States, but the really good barbecue is still made in small out-of-the-way restaurants that sometimes seem a little uninviting until you taste those wonderful ribs, burnt ends or pulled pork sandwiches.
There’s one in Kansas City in what was once a gas station and another in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in a long low building that grew along with the business. And though it’s a days’s drive north of the Ohio River, you can get some darned good barbecue at a little take-out restaurant near Dale and University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
More than forty years ago some friends at Murray State University introduced me to a great barbecue place in Fulton, Kentucky. Wonderful rib sandwiches were served in the bar room of an old hotel by a waiter in a white shirt and black bow tie. The meat, smoked in the courtyard behind the hotel, was served with plain white bread. The only condiment was a hot sauce that you soon learned to respect. The little unlabeled bottles were plenty big. No Kansas City or Carolina sauces were allowed in the building.
There’s a restaurant along I-35/I-80 at Des Moines, Iowa, that comes close to matching that old place with the meat and sauce, in case you also like real barbecue.
As you can tell, we often stop at different barbecue restaurants on our trips south. Of course we stay at a lot of hotels too, and all of them offer a hot breakfast, which usually means a waffle machine and a slow cooker filled with sausage gravy next to a tray of biscuits. Our favorite hotels, like the Wildwood Lodge at Des Moines, Iowa, often add grits and bacon to the breakfast bar.
But when I think of a gourmet breakfast, I remember the men’s prayer breakfasts with my brother-in-law at the First United Methodist Church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Church chef Wayne Rountree served bacon, eggs, sausage gravy, tender hot biscuits and grits to die for. When I told him that his were the best grits I had ever tasted, he smiled and told me that there was a half pound of butter in every gallon batch.
For the lighter appetites there were a couple of choices of cereal, milk, toast, juice, and coffee. It was no wonder that the Men’s Prayer breakfasts were well attended, even though they started at 6:00 AM. I think that every church would benefit from a dedicated church chef like Wayne.
Wayne’s sausage gravy was tastier than most hotel gravies, but I think that mine is better than his. After I posted our sausage gravy recipe on our personal web site a man in England emailed me that he had been making a survey of sausage gravies and that mine was the best one he had found to date. That was a long time ago, so he probably has found another version more to his taste by now, but we still like ours.
With fresh biscuits or toast, sausage gravy makes a hearty breakfast on a crisp morning. You can use either mild or hot pork sausage.
1 lb. pork sausage
4 T flour
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. tarragon
2 cups milk
Dash of hot sauce
Salt to taste
In a heavy frying pan or skillet cook the sausage and break it into small pieces. Use a slotted spoon to remove the sausage from the pan once it is cooked. Leave the fat from the sausage in the pan. There should be about 4 tablespoons fat, but this will depend upon the sausage. If there is too much fat, spoon some out. If not enough, add some shortening or butter.
Put the flour, salt, tarragon and white pepper in the pan over low heat and blend until it is smooth and begins to bubble. Cook for about three minutes . Do not brown the flour. Add the milk all at once and cook until it bubbles and thickens. Return the sausage to the pan and stir it into the sauce. Add a dash of hot sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Serve on toast or baking powder biscuits.
NOTES: This recipe serves four adults generously or two adults and one teenaged boy. Add a bit more hot sauce for extra flavor.
Sausage gravy is a good choice for brunch as well as breakfast. It goes especially well with scrambled eggs, bacon, grits and fresh fruit for a brunch buffet.
The white sauce cuts the heat of the spice, so don’t be afraid to try hot pork sausage sometime.