The Debated Origins Of Biscuits And Gravy, A Southern Classic

displayed plate of biscuits and gravy
displayed plate of biscuits and gravy - Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

Some dishes are such deeply embedded classics that it's hard to imagine a cuisine without them. What's Mexican food without tacos, or Italian sans pasta? Which leads us to asking, can you imagine southern food without biscuits and gravy? The essential breakfast offering is can be found atthe most hole-in-the-wall diners to reimagined spiffy fine dining establishments. So when exactly did it come about?

As it often goes with the most ubiquitous foods, determining the precise emergence is fuzzy. The biscuit component is a centuries-old invention, brought along to the U.S. with some of the very first settlers. In its original form, it was baked several times to a supremely dry consistency for preservation. Due to the lack of leaving agents and scarcity of yeast, fluffiness could only be achieved through laborious air integration. As a result, freshly prepared biscuits were a food often prepared by slaves for wealthy families. Once baking soda and baking powder were invented in the mid-19th century, the fluffy southern biscuit emerged in its modern form.

Precisely when the gravy became a common accompaniment is unknown. Some suggest it was served with the earlier drier biscuits around the Revolutionary War, perhaps as a way to make them more palatable. However, it's more widely thought that the pairing took off during the late 19th century in the Appalachian region. Once biscuit-making became more affordable, the food emerged as a working-class favorite across the South.

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It's Believed Biscuits And Gravy Became Popular In 19th Century Appalachia

biscuits covered in sausage gravy
biscuits covered in sausage gravy - Pickstock/Getty Images

Whether or not the Appalachian region was the birthplace of biscuits and gravy may never be verified. However, there is enough lore that signifies the dish accrued cultural prominence in the region. For one, there's the frequent inclusion of pork in the dish, which stems from the working-class history of sausage gravy. Up to the 20th century, pork was considered a less coveted protein option. Through the second half of the 19th century, it became established as an excellent gravy thickener, served alongside newly-accessibly priced flour and leavening agents for new biscuit renditions. It all added up to a satiating option prior to a day of manual work. And since the wood industry was so prominent in the area, a rendition called sawmill gravy & biscuit took form.

Pork sausage is undoubtedly a delicious addition, but as the dish gained traction across the South it sopped up other regional gravy variants. From Charleston's shrimp gravy, to Mississippi-style okra gravy, or even Appalachian chocolate gravy, many sauces appeared alongside.

The dish kept spreading: By the late 20th century the, malleable comfort food could be found across the U.S. Restaurants in cities like Portland, Oregon started serving their own spin, alongside dishes like eggs Benedict -- a far cry from the dish's humble origins. Today, it's still easiest to find a perfect execution of the dish in the South, but it's become rightfully adopted as an all-American classic.

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