Read the words “biscuits and gravy,” and an image of flaky, buttery biscuits topped with a decadent, sausage-studded cream gravy comes to mind. You can find some version of the dish served in diners and cafes, food trucks, fast-food outlets and even white-tablecloth restaurants the nation over — not just in the South, its birthplace.
The indulgent meal, beloved by people from all walks of life, is ingrained in the fabric of America’s breakfast and brunch culture. But its origins were decidedly modest.
Biscuits and gravy in some form may go back as early as the Revolutionary War, but many food writers and culinary historians position its birthplace in southern Appalachia in the late 1800s. Lumber was one of the main industries of the region, which supports the origin story that sausage gravy was also called sawmill gravy. It was the ideal cheap and calorie-dense fuel for sawmill workers lifting heavy logs all day long, and the perfect tool for making the era’s biscuits more palatable.
America’s first biscuits were much sturdier than today’s delicate specimens. Called “beaten biscuits,” they got their leavening and smooth texture from being vigorously beaten and folded, according to John Egerton in “Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History.”
A dough-kneading machine invented in 1877 “not only saved beaten biscuits from extinction but actually made them smoother, prettier, and more popular than before,” Egerton writes.
Around the same time, baking powder and soda became commercially available. Combine this with the increased availability of flour, and the South became fertile ground for a new version of the biscuit to take root, giving cornbread a run for its money as the reigning quick bread of the region.
Why did sausage gravy become their de facto companion? It was a simple matter of economics.
“Biscuits with ‘country’ or ‘white’ gravy scratched together from sausage, pan drippings, flour, and milk were affordably made from the foodstuffs that were in low supply after the American Revolutionary War,” writes Heather Arndt Anderson in “Breakfast: A History.”
When it entered the culinary canon, biscuits and gravy was for the poor, working class. “Pork was always the protein of the poor,” Arndt Anderson said in an email. “Sausage releases so much fat when cooked that a roux comes together easily in the drippings.”
Yet for some, such as my own grandmother, even sausage and dairy were out of reach at times.
Born in 1928 in tiny Rondo, Arkansas, my grandmother and her family lived on a farm among fields of cotton and other crops. Biscuits were almost always on the breakfast table.
In a family of about 10, “Being the oldest daughter, it was my plight to get up and make biscuits if Mama didn’t do it,” she tells me. She would form a well in a mound of flour, baking powder and salt and add liquid to form a dough, which she kneaded, rolled out, cut and baked into the morning’s rations. Depending largely on if they had a cow that recently birthed a calf (or a generous neighbor willing to share), the liquid was either milk or water.
During the lean times, breakfast consisted of just biscuits and “thick gravy” — water thickened by a brown roux of oil and flour. No sausage, and no cream.
The South is home to many gravies, and virtually any of them could be served with biscuits. Appalachian food authority Ronni Lundi talks of chipped beef and gravy and tomato gravy in her cookbook “Victuals.” “The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook” includes recipes for Mississippi Chennai okra gravy, oyster gravy and Roan Mountain corn gravy .
Nicole Taylor, executive food editor at Thrillist, recalls first experiencing biscuits and gravy in her hometown of Athens, Georgia, at the now-closed Katherine’s Kitchen, where her mother worked. “Biscuits were a treat,” Taylor says, and she ate them with ham steak and red-eye gravy, traditionally made from ham drippings and coffee.
Erika Council, esteemed biscuit queen and granddaughter of famous North Carolina restaurateur Mildred “Mama Dip” Council, on the other hand, says the gravy she ate with biscuits was of the sausage variety. Biscuits and gravy has been served over the years at her family’s Charlotte, North Carolina, restaurant and is one of the best-selling items at her biscuit pop-ups in Atlanta. “The sausage gravy [is] ... definitely requested often when we cater,” she says.
Though biscuits and gravy started out as a humble regional dish, its presence has spread far and wide. In addition to human migration, the invention of refrigerated tube biscuits in 1930 made biscuits and gravy easier to prepare at home. Eventually, the dish even took root on restaurant menus as far away as the Pacific Northwest.
“As a staple of the poor, biscuits and gravy would never have appeared on fancy restaurant or hotel menus in Portland’s past,” Arndt Anderson wrote in an article for PDX Monthly. “By the early 1980s, though, seemingly out of nowhere, spots around town began casually advertising the B&G, as though it had always held the same breakfast menu real estate as bacon and eggs.”
Today, you can find biscuits and gravy just about anywhere. That means biscuits and lamb gravy at the Greek Street Dayton food truck in Dayton, Ohio; fried chicken, bacon and cheese on a biscuit topped with gravy from Pine State Biscuits in Portland, Oregon; and a dish called Fantasy Island at Leo’s Diner in Omaha. The latter includes hash browns topped with biscuits and gravy, two eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, green pepper, onion and tomato.
Buttermilk Biscuits With Sausage Gravy
For the biscuits:
1½ cups flour, plus more for dusting
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed
¼ teaspoon baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cubed
¾ cup cold buttermilk, well shaken
For the gravy:
12 ounces uncooked pork breakfast sausage (casings removed, as needed)
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon ground black pepper, or more as needed
2 cups whole milk
For the biscuits: Whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and baking soda in a mixing bowl, to blend well. Add the cubed butter to the flour mixture; use a food processor, pastry cutter, two forks or your clean hands to quickly work in the butter, just until the largest pieces are pea-size.
Pour in the buttermilk, processing or stirring until a dough begins to form; if you are stirring by hand, there will still be dry bits.
Lightly flour your work surface. Turn out the dough there, and pat it into a rough rectangle. Roll it out slightly and fold it over on itself a couple of times. Form into a 4-by-6-inch rectangle that’s 3/4- to 1-inch thick (try to square up the corners as much as possible), then cut it into 6 squares of equal size (about 2 inches each).
Line a quarter baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange the biscuits on it, spacing them at least an inch apart. Freeze (on the sheet) for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Transfer the biscuits on their baking sheet directly to the oven; bake (middle or lower rack) until golden brown on top and bottom, 15 to 17 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the gravy: Add pinches of the sausage to a large skillet; cook over medium heat, using a wooden spoon to further break them apart until only small pieces of sausage remain and it is no longer pink on the outside, 5 to 6 minutes.
Sprinkle with the flour and black pepper; cook, stirring regularly, until the flour has been absorbed by the sausage and it has started to brown, and the sausage crumbles are cooked all the way through, 3 to 4 minutes.
Gradually pour in the milk, stirring regularly, and adjust the heat as needed so the mixture is just bubbling at the edges; cook 6 to 8 minutes, stirring often, until the gravy has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. You should have about 2½ cups.
Add salt as needed. Serve warm, spooned over the biscuits.
Make ahead: The gravy can be refrigerated a day in advance. Reheat over low heat; you may need to add more milk to loosen it up.
Nutrition information: calories: 510; total fat: 34 g; saturated fat: 18 g; cholesterol: 95 mg; sodium: 790 mg; carbohydrates: 33 g; dietary fiber: 4 g; sugars: 7 g; protein: 16 g.
Adapted from Aaron Hutcherson of TheHungryHutch.com.