Reprint with permission Taste of the South Magazine

During the year I was president of the National Speakers Association, I sent each of my 18 board members what I thought was the perfect Christmas gift from a Southern humorist—slices of country ham. Real country ham trimmed with enough fat to make redeye gravy. My gift card proclaimed, “Southern ham from a Southern ham.” It seemed clever to me.

The Southern board members raved— well, of course. For the Southerner, receiving real country ham is like finding gold. But, heaven help me, the responses of speakers from “somewheres else” revealed that they had no idea what to do with country ham. A seminar leader in Arizona cooked her slices in the oven for hours. When she finally took a bite, a cap came off her tooth. A motivational type in California beat his ham with a mallet and cooked it in the microwave until it was inedible. A sales trainer in Minnesota boiled his ham, and his dog wouldn’t even eat it. In general, most thought it had spoiled in shipping. So sad.

But I could sympathize. I regretted wasting good country ham on the undeserving, but I definitely understood. I took after my grandmother who didn’t cook rather than the one who did.

My husband, Jerry, loves eggs, country ham, grits, biscuits, and that most Southern of traditions—redeye gravy. I like these dishes, too, but prefer to order them in restaurants. I know to ask, “Do you have real country ham or just city ham?” (I save my breath if the restaurant is not in the South.)

The first year we were married, I asked Jerry what he wanted for Christmas breakfast. It was the last year he had a choice. He chose a big Southern breakfast like the one outlined above and placed special emphasis on the redeye gravy. He even added something like, “Do you know how to make it?”

“Of course,” I assured him and immediately telephoned my “cooking grandmother” in Luverne, Alabama. (Babies in Luverne are given the recipe for redeye gravy when they leave the hospital.)

She gave me directions. “Leave the fat on slices of ham, and fry them in your black cast-iron skillet until the ham is brown on both sides. You do have a black cast-iron skillet, don’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. When the ham is brown, cut off some of the fat, and take the ham out of the skillet and put it on a warm plate. Leave the browned drippings and fat in the pan. Add several tablespoons of black coffee to the drippings in the skillet and maybe a little water. Cook it down until it starts smoking and pour it in a bowl. In a few minutes, you’ll see a difference in color. That’s the ‘redeye’ in redeye gravy.”

It certainly sounded simple, although her words “maybe add a little water” made me nervous. And what was “cook it down”? But it was the word she didn’t use that caused the problem. If you read back over her directions, you’ll notice she didn’t say a word about first brewing the coffee.

I got the black cast-iron skillet from under the bed. (To this day, we keep one there to knock out intruders. It’s the heaviest thing we can pick up and swing.) I fried the ham until it was plenty brown and put it on a warm plate. Then, as instructed, I measured out several heaping tablespoons of ground coffee and dumped them amongst the drippings in the skillet. I threw in a little water and started “cooking it down.” I still wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so I just waited for it to start smoking. When it did, I scraped the gritty concoction out of the black skillet into a bowl. I sure didn’t see any redeye. It looked like dirty grease. That said, I was right proud of myself when I plopped it all down in front of Jerry and watched him heap gravy on his grits, eggs, and biscuits.

I’ll say one thing for him. He tried. He truly tried to eat whatever it was that was all over his food. But he didn’t rave. So soon, I said, “Well?”

He chewed slowly several times and then held up a finger to signal, “Gimme a minute.” Next, he took a big swallow of milk, chewed some more, and finally proclaimed, “It’s different.”

“Different how?”

“I’m not sure,” he mumbled, working his tongue around in his mouth. “But it’s the first time I’ve ever had redeye gravy stuck between my teeth.”
An acclaimed professional speaker and humorist, Jeanne Robertson was born and raised in Graham, North Carolina. She and her husband make their home in Burlington, North Carolina. Jeanne’s hilarious real-life experiences are the basis for the numerous recordings to her credit, as well as the three books she has authored. She can be heard on XM Radio. To learn more about Jeanne, go to www.jeannerobertson.com.