What Is Tomato Gravy?
It’s a Southern breakfast tradition—at least for some.
In Southern summers, there comes a point when tomato plant production far outpaces tomato consumption. As the sun-kissed fruits ripen, their texture goes from firm and pleasant to gloppy, even watery. There’s little hope in using them for a sandwich or a pie, so where could the liquefied nature of the now over-ripe tomatoes come in handy? Tomato gravy.
Gravy covers a lot of sins. Overcooked the roast? Pour on some brown gravy. Biscuits a little tough? Scoop some extra sausage gravy on top. Having a bad day? Here, honey, you need some chocolate gravy.
Gravy is a food born of creative frugalness and a little ingredient ingenuity: you have the base of a good sauce—that is, some fat left over from cooking bacon, sausage, or ham—waiting for you in the skillet. So why not just make something special with it? That’s perhaps exactly where tomato gravy began: lean times, slim pantries, hungry mouths.
The base of this particular breakfast specialty is familiar: Combine fat (butter will work if you don’t have pan drippings) with flour to make a roux. Cook until golden brown and toasty. Then, stir in chopped day-past-prime tomatoes. You can even grate the fruit if you want a finer texture. Cook until glossy and thick. Too thick? Add water or stock. Too thin? Let it simmer a bit longer. The flour will eventually catch up. Salt and pepper to taste.
If this seems entirely too simple to be special, that’s perhaps what makes it so distinct. Tomato gravy is “a desperation gravy,” something that cooks could make with the foods they had at their fingertips, no special ingredients and, perhaps most importantly, no spending any more money. It also helped solve the over-ripe tomato conundrum, creating yet another way to make sure the farmer’s hard work didn’t go to waste.
In some regions, cornmeal is used in place of flour, cream instead of stock. If you don’t have either of those, water will do. Tiny bits of bacon are a must for a few, but in some areas onions and celery are a requirement and cooked to tender. Slices of okra and green onions are sometimes added, too.
The final result is a tangy, savory topping that’s traditionally served on biscuits but also welcome on cornbread or over polenta, rice, and grains. Scrambled eggs would be a quality host. You could make breakfast burritos with a bit of the rich and satiny sauce, too. And if you think it’s far too savory for the morning meal, consider another common spot for tomato gravy: atop meat like pork, chicken, shrimp, and meatloaf.
Food historians have yet to trace a geographic epicenter for tomato gravy. If you ask a Georgian, they may tell you their aunt from Alabama made it. If you ask someone from Alabama where to get good tomato gravy, odds are they’ll offer you a look of confusion. In Mississippi, they might offer you a list of their favorite dinners, or even offer to cook you some.
Outside of summer, canned tomatoes are acceptable. High-quality canned brands are best so you get the tang and zip of just-picked fruits. That’s what really stands out on first bite of any tomato gravy. Even with the differing ingredient options, tomato gravy is bright and acidic first. The fatty bacon bits or tender okra pieces rise to the fore later.
Try Our Recipe: Southern Tomato Gravy
WATCH: How To Make Sausage Gravy
Don’t confuse tomato gravy with red gravy. That’s a moniker given to a roux-based tomato sauce (see why this is confusing?) that’s served with red wine, meatballs, and cheese. In other words, red gravy is pasta sauce. It’s sometimes used in New Orleans’ restaurants, but it’s even more common in areas with a heavy Italian influence, like New York and New Jersey. In these areas, tomato sauce is commonly referred to as gravy. So if you ask for tomato gravy in places where they don’t sweeten their tea, don’t be surprised if you’re served spaghetti.