Country hams have long been a Southern staple and one old-time recipe is country ham served on a bed of creamy grits topped with redeye gravy. Redeye gravy is not gravy, nor is it red. It is made from coffee — or Coca-Cola — that is simply poured into the skillet to loosen the salty brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Food lore has two possible explanations for its unusual moniker: The first is that the county ham steak usually has a small round bone in the center (the femur) that resembles an eye. The second is that redeye refers to the caffeine in the coffee, making the dish a rousing breakfast.
Ham can be fresh, cured, or both cured and smoked. A ham is technically the front or back leg of a pig. A picnic ham or picnic shoulder is from the front upper portion of the leg and includes a portion of the shoulder. Ham can be fresh or cured. Fresh ham is unprocessed and pale pink to beige after cooking. Cured ham is usually deep pink as a result of the curing process, involving a combination of salt and spices and sometimes, but not always, smoke. Dry-cured ham like country ham, Italian prosciutto or Spanish Serrano is deep pink to mahogany red. Mass producers use nitrates, but the real old-fashioned, handcrafted country hams are a beautiful marriage of salt, smoke and patience. The salt eventually pulls so much moisture from the ham that bacteria cannot survive.
It does sound bizarre, but redeye gravy is a combination that oddly works. The salty, sweet ham and the mildly sour bitterness of the coffee is a flavor explosion on top of the creamy grits. Ground corn in the form of grits is simple country food. Most Southerners love grits and I am no exception. I am a grits missionary. Comments like “I don’t like grits” cause me to react with purpose and intent to convert the uninitiated. If the only grits you have ever had came out of a packet and were cooked in a microwave, of course you don’t like grits! Give this dish a try for some eye-opening down-home comfort.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Get the Recipe: Country Ham with Stone-Ground Grits and Redeye Gravy
Georgia-born, French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has cooked lapin Normandie with Julia Child in France, prepared lunch for President Clinton and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. A Southern food authority, she is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, among others. Follow her continuing exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.