This Side of the Pond – Nov. 21

By Sarah Pridgeon

I’m gearing up for my bi-annual visit to the motherland and the list of contraband that I plan to bring back with me is growing ever longer. I will be smuggling my favorite cosmetics and magazines with me, along with the usual family pack of teabags. But at the top of the list, and likely to appear on my suitcase inventory in alarming quantity, is brown gravy.

In England, gravy comes in a wide variety of flavors and styles, with many different preparation options. If, like me, you’re not convinced that a meal can be called a meal unless it’s drowning in piping hot sauce, this is very important.

I noticed quickly that dinners in this part of the world tend to come with an array of dips and vinaigrettes, each one appropriate for a different part of the plate. Steak sauce for the meat, for example, while the potato needs sour cream and the salad won’t work without dressing. This is very tasty, but it’s a lot more liquid than I’m used to combining in a small space.

I hasten to point out that there’s nothing actually wrong with brown gravy on this side of the pond. It’s just that the aroma does not invoke three decades of family memories.

To a British person, all the individual dishes that make up a dinner should be united using the magical power of gravy. It matters very little what vegetables, meats, starches and other ingredients you choose throw on the plate, because gravy has the supremacy to bring them all together. Obviously this doesn’t really work if you’re planning a lasagna and salad, but for the most part our favorite condiment is the dinnertime equivalent of a cup of tea: nothing really works without it.

Daily life moves at an ever-increasing pace and, as we are constantly told by worried magazine articles, it’s hard to find the time to make a proper family meal. This prompted the British to invent a new gravy methodology that can bind a dinner to perfection in a matter of moments. We call this miracle the gravy granule.

The granule revolution was met with such unparalleled excitement that, these days, most of us have forgotten what the powdered version of gravy even looks like. Nowadays, there is no need to stand by the stove until the gravy thickens smoothly; instead, the granules dissolve and turn into sauce as soon as they make contact with hot water. Simply boil the kettle, pour water over the granules and presto, your meal is complete.

It’s much easier to master than either powdered gravy or real gravy, which is made by thickening the juices from roasted meat. Not that this helped my poor father, who once mistook a jar of brown sugar for the gravy granules and ruined a perfectly good roast chicken. He has never been allowed to forget it.

Much like fine wine, our gravy is also carefully paired with its intended dinner destination. We use onion gravy for sausages and mashed potato, chicken or beef gravy for a Sunday roast and original gravy for a shepherd’s pie. Admittedly, it’s all the same brown gravy, but each has a slightly different flavor. If you’re going to rely on a single sauce to complement your entire week’s menu, we’ve found that it’s best to aim for internal diversity.

I was miserable to discover that this way of thinking has failed to cross the ocean. Perhaps it’s because white gravy is much more popular over here, or perhaps my nation is simply a bit obsessive: when we find something that works, we latch on to it like a bulldog to a burglar’s leg.

Fortunately, gravy granules are sold in humungous tubs and can be spooned into a jug in any quantity, which means I can both bring sufficient back with me and make it last for several months. While my cupboards remain replete with imported packages, my options are well and truly open. I can drown my plate in more than a single cup of gravy without tearing open an extra sachet and I have the full range of similar-tasting flavors at my fingertips.

This suits the dog, who has developed quite the passion for a drop of the good stuff. Amused that she should be so keen on a treat from my homeland, I once made the mistake of mixing some leftover gravy in with her food. The next time I served it, she stared wild-eyed at the side of my head, shaking with such endearing anticipation that I couldn’t resist saving her some.

We call this look of yearning, “The Gravy Face.”
We call this look of yearning, “The Gravy Face.”

Not surprisingly, the situation escalated as the weeks went by. These days, she refuses to eat her food at all until human dinner is served, just in case the gravy boat comes out. You might be thinking that it’s a very spoiled canine indeed who dines on food that must be flown 5000 miles before it can be served. The problem is, were I ever to withhold what she now believes to be her share, that I wouldn’t be confident of my survival chances.

The Great Gravy Obsession is linked inextricably to our love of a Sunday roast. The English are known affectionately by our French siblings as “Les Ros Boeufs” thanks to our time-honored obedience to this ritual. Families across the country gather at lunchtime on Sunday to serve roasted meat with accompanying vegetables, roast potatoes and the inevitable jug of gravy. It’s fairly similar to a Thanksgiving dinner in both presentation and the subsequent need to spend the afternoon snoring from an armchair.

British cuisine is regarded as bland by many of the world’s cultures and, though that’s a bit of a misnomer, it’s quite true that we didn’t understand the concept of spice until our Indian friends introduced us to curry. A basic family meal usually consists of meat, potatoes and two veg – plus gravy to make it a touch more exciting. Anything more complicated is, as my grandmother used to say, largely regarded as “funny food.”

This is the fare I grew up on and, while I happily accept that the myriad of sauces available to me here make every meal an adventure, some things are difficult to let go of. I’m all for adding recipes to my book but, because I’m a little less keen on removing them, brown gravy will have to remain on the menu. Now if I can just work out how to make gravy work with a cheeseburger and fries, I will consider myself a fully integrated citizen.