M: The term “country” ham seems to date back to the 1940’s, but only because before refrigeration became common it didn’t need a special name, as this was ham in its most common form. That is, pork that has been salt-cured to extend it’s shelf life and stability. While smoking is not a requirement in the process, it is commonly done and gives the meat that especially reddish color. It’s salty as all get out, but dang it’s tasty. Especially on a biscuit and topped with red-eye gravy. Ah, red-eye gravy. So good, but what the heck is in it?
The story goes that when Andrew Jackson was a General, he sat down to breakfast and when asked by a clearly hungover cook what he’d like to eat, asked him to bring some gravy as “red as his eyes”. More likely, it got its name from the pools of reddish fat that form on the gravy when reducing. Whatever the origin of its moniker, this simple gravy speaks to what culinary delight can result from cooking what’s at hand. There can be little doubt that this was not conceived so much as borne from a desire to rescue all the flavor left in the skillet after frying up a little country ham for breakfast and reaching for that cup of coffee resting on the sideboard (or even buckboard).
This is the classic combination, but a little red eye stirred into a bowl of rice or your morning grits goes a long way too. It is amazing how much flavor can be pulled from a little scrap of ham fat. This recipe adds a bit of brown sugar, which is most welcome (especially against the saltiest of salty, the country ham). Nothing makes me feel like I’m in the South like a good gravy and this one lands high on the list in ingredients, name, and the deeply Southern ability to pull a little extra magic out of an all but empty skillet.
Recipe: Country Ham with Red Eye Gravy
Summary: The distinctive salty pleasure of salt-cured ham topped with a gravy conjured from ham fat and coffee turns a journeyman’s breakfast into something fit for a General. From The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.
- 2 Slices Country Ham
- 1 tsp vegetable oil, as needed
- 1/2 c Hot Coffee, divided
- 1 T Brown Sugar
- Trim fat from ham and cook in at medium heat in cast iron skillet until rendered (about 3 minutes). Add vegetable oil, if needed.
- Pour 1/4 c of coffee into skillet.
- Add brown sugar and stir until melted.
- Place ham in skillet, place lid on skillet and heat until steam rises.
- Remove lid and cook until ham is lightly browned.
- Remove ham and set aside on warm plate.
- Remove any remaining pieces of fat and add 1/4 c coffee.
- Increase heat to medium-high and stir until gravy thickens and cooks down.
- Serve hot with ham slices (and biscuits!)
Originally: Country Ham with Red Eye Gravy