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Red Eye Gravy is a Delicious Southern Classic

Walk into any diner in Alabama, Louisiana and across the south and you'll likely find red eye gravy on the menu. As strange as the name sounds, this dish is a southern staple that's not to be passed by. Made with just country ham drippings and strong black coffee, red eye gravy is a Southern classic.

What is Red Eye Gravy?

Red eye gravy, also called poor man's gravy, bird-eye gravy, bottom sop, cedar gravy and red ham gravy, is a thin sauce made from Southern country ham. This tasty sauce is enjoyed over ham, grits or biscuits. Along with being tasty, this traditional sauce is perfect for keeping a biscuit from being too dry and adding extra flavor.

You can eat Southern red eye gravy whenever it suits your fancy, whether that's breakfast, brunch or dinner. Although the combination of coffee and ham fat may sound unappetizing to those who haven't tried it, the salty sweetness of this unexpected mixture is downright delicious.

country ham with red eye gravy

Getty Images/NRedmond

This tasty sauce is enjoyed differently depending on where you are. In Alabama, it's often mixed with mustard or ketchup. As for Louisiana, the gravy is made with roast beef rather than ham, and the gravy is often served with rice, French bread, and some kind of beans. Another variation is tomato gravy, which is made by adding flour and tomatoes to bacon grease. This is then eaten over fried fish.

Why Do They Call It Red Eye Gravy?

This Southern dish's name comes from its unusual appearance. When the coffee and grease are combined in the last step, the mixture separates, with the coffee sinking to the bottom and grease staying on top. When in a round bowl, the sauce looks look a red human eye. Some cooks use red pepper in the dish as well, which only adds to the vibrant color.

Depending on the preparation, the "red eye" isn't always so distinct. Because of this, stories and legends have been perpetuated over time explaining the gravy's strange name. One story has it that past president Andrew Jackson asked for ham with gravy "as red as his cook's eyes," referencing how bloodshot his cook's eyes were from drinking the previous night. Another legend surrounding the name is that it comes from the belief that the black coffee in the gravy keeps people awake.

What Are the Main Ingredients of Red Eye Gravy?

This comfort food traditionally only contains strong black coffee and drippings from ham slices. The ham is fried in a large cast iron skillet or pan on medium high heat until crispy and browned. The fried country ham is then taken off the pan, and boiling black coffee is poured into the large skillet. The cook then must deglaze the pan, scraping the sides and bottom.

However, the exact method depends on the recipe. Some recipes add brown sugar or water to this southern food, and others add butter or lard to thicken the sauce. One of the best parts of this classic dish is that its prep time and cook time are quick, adding up to a total time of around 15 minutes.

Here's a red eye gravy recipe from The Spruce Eats to try it for yourself!

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