Southern Tomato Gravy
September 17, 2018 | Updated June 06, 2022
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I remember the first time I had a Southern tomato gravy: It was at my friend John Currence’s place, Big Bad Breakfast, in Oxford, Mississippi.
I was puzzled by it. Tomato gravy? In the South? At breakfast? Yes and yes.
Where I grew up, tomato gravy is Italian American slang for a tomato sauce, something not eaten at breakfast. Turns out Southern tomato gravy is simpler, homier and every bit as tasty as a good red sauce from back home in Jersey.
After that breakfast, I forgot about tomato gravy for a while. Then I picked up a fantastic Southern cookbook called Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. I can’t say enough about this book, and as a descendant of Scots-Irish immigrants myself, reading about the deep food culture of Appalachia was engrossing. I quickly set about making leather britches, a/k/a dried green beans, as well as fermented sour corn.
And there it was, Southern tomato gravy. Bacon, onions, tomatoes, a splash of sorghum syrup for sweetness. Lots of cracked black pepper. I resolved to make it this time.
Variations abound if you look around the South. You thicken it with cornmeal, flour or, well, nothing. Sometimes okra makes an appearance, sometimes herbs. You see dairy in it once in a while, notably sweet cream or evaporated milk. A few versions add stock. It can be smooth or chunky.
I love the one from Victuals. And while culturally it’s not Italian, philosophically it is.
A good Southern tomato gravy hinges on everything in it being good: Bacon, onions, tomatoes, syrup, and, most of all, black pepper. Similarly, there is a dish in Italy called cacio e pepe, which is little more than black pepper, cheese, maybe some olive oil, and pasta. It all comes together like magic if every ingredient shines. If not, it sucks.
Ditto with this gravy.
(Looking for another traditional Southern gravy? Try my classic red eye gravy.)
Bacon? Get the best you can find. If you don’t love bacon, use lard, or butter or duck fat, or fat rendered from a country ham.
Sorghum syrup is normally called for in this recipe, and while you can buy sorghum syrup online, it can be tough to find in most supermarkets. The first time I made this I used birch syrup from Alaska and it worked well. A dark maple syrup, British treacle, or a light molasses would also be good choices.
Tomatoes need to be either high-quality canned tomatoes, or ripe fresh ones. You don’t want paste or Roma tomatoes, either. The juice in this gravy comes from the tomatoes, so use beefsteak or Brandywine or some other large tomato that is really ripe, almost too ripe.
And for God’s sake grind your own pepper over this. Seriously. It makes a huge difference. You want a lot here, enough to taste the black pepper.
What to serve with your Southern tomato gravy?
All kinds of stuff. Grits, rice, cornbread, biscuits, any variety of meat or fish you can think of. I chose to make country fried dove breasts. Seems appropriate, since tomatoes are at their ripest when dove season hits throughout the South.
I can tell you that this dish was out-of-this-world good. Doves or no, make this tomato gravy. You won’t be sad.
OTHER GREAT DOVE RECIPES
I have 25 dove recipes here on Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, ranging from Moroccan-inspired bacon-wrapped doves to grilled doves Cajun style. Some great Labor Day grilling or barbecue options include:
- Doves la Mancha. An irresistible Spanish preparation that has become one of my signature dishes.
- Hank’s dove poppers. This is my spin on a Dove Opener favorite.
- Smoked doves bathed in a Mexican guajillo sauce. Rich and only moderately spicy.
- Grilled doves with an Arizona desert inspired barbecue sauce.
- Slow and low barbecued doves.
Southern Tomato Gravy with Country Fried Doves
- 4 to 6 slices bacon, or 3 tablespoons some other fat or oil
- 1 cup finely chopped onion
- 1 heaping tablespoon fine cornmeal or all-purpose flour
- 1 14-ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes, or 1 1/2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes
- 1 to 2 tablespoons sorghum or maple syrup, or light molasses
- Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 pound dove breasts (from about 16 doves or so), other some other meat
- Salt or Cavender's Seasoning
- 1 cup flour
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup buttermilk
- 1 sleeve Saltines, crushed to resemble breadcrumbs
- Oil for frying
MAKE THE GRAVY
- In a large skillet, ideally cast iron, cook the bacon slowly until crispy. Remove the bacon. Eat two pieces. Chop the remaining pieces. Leave about 3 or 4 tablespoons bacon fat in the pan.
- Add the onion and cook over medium heat until it softens, about 5 to 10 minutes. Take your time. Sprinkle the cornmeal or flour over everything and stir this in. Cook over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes.
- Pour in the can of tomatoes with their juices. If you're using fresh tomatoes, chop them up well beforehand, reserving as much of the juices as possible. I seed them, but you don't have to. Drizzle over the syrup, too.
- Stir this all in and cook, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes basically dissolve, about 20 to 30 minutes. I cover the pan while cooking, otherwise you might need to add a little bit of water to get it right: You want the gravy to be a bit thicker than Thanksgiving gravy, and a bit chunky. If this bothers you, puree it in a blender.
- Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Smoked salt is a good call here, and you want a lot of pepper, as it's part of what makes this gravy so good. Keep warm while you make the doves.
FRY THE DOVES
- I like to put the dove breasts, one by one, in a freezer bag and pound them out flat with a rubber mallet, but you don't need to; they cook better my way, but it is an extra step. Salt them well, or dust with Cavender's seasoning, or Cajun seasoning.
- Set up a breading station. Put the flour in a bowl and season it with a tablespoon or so of Cavender's or salt. In the next bowl, mix the buttermilk and the beaten eggs, and thin it out with about a tablespoon of water. Now put the pulverized Saltines in a plastic bag.
- Get oil nice and hot in a large skillet. You're looking for about 350F. Flour a few dove breasts, dredge in the egg mixture, then toss to coat in the mashed saltines. Do about 4 or 5 breasts at a shot and make sure they nicely coated.
- Fry in the oil about 1 to 2 minutes per side. Set aside while you finish the rest. Top with tomato gravy and serve with grits, biscuits, cornmeal or rice.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
Wonderful alternative to white gravy for Venison Cube Steak. What’s keep time on this gravy? I’m planing to make much extra
RD: Typically a week in the fridge.
But what do you do with the chopped bacon? Reserve it for another use?
Shelby: It goes into the sauce at the end.
I first saw the email for fried dove breast with tomato gravy and said, “Yes, why didn’t I think of that?” I am from south Louisiana and tomato gravy is a staple. Just curious, when you said fine corn meal or AP flour, did you mean corn flour? I always opt to use a corn product rather than wheat, but can’t wrap my head around making a roux with corn meal. If I am missing the boat, please enlighten.
Arno: It’s a full roux in Louisiana, using wheat, but in Appalachia they sprinkle fine corn meal, or corn flour over the onions and bacon fat to help thicken things.
We just had this for dinner at Cherokee Plantation, Yemassee S.C. shot the doves yesterday Chef Roger cooked this recipe tonight, with brown rice , squash casserole and spoon bread. Perhaps the finest game meal I have ever eaten.
If there is a recipe hall of fame, this one would be there. It is as good as it gets.
Joe E Taylor
Thanks so much for the shout out, and for sharing one of my all time favorite recipes. Was talking about salt-rising bread, toasted with tomato gravy, just this morning. With doves sounds like something my mama would have loved, too.
Ronni: Wow! Thanks a heap for commenting. Love your book. As someone of Scots-Irish stock, albeit Canadian, I am really fascinated by Appalachia.
Love this idea! Gonna save for the next time my husband brings home doves.
I love southern tomato gravy. I first saw it in Heritage, the Sean Brock book, and been making it following his recipe. He serves it with a slow roasted pork shoulder and creamed corn. That’s what i mostly do with it too. Now, I have to make it again soon to serve with all kinds of fried things!
Cavender’s is a Greek seasoning. I’m in St. Louis, but I thought it was available everywhere…
G.P. Dorris: It’s quasi-Greek. The company has its origins in the Ozarks, and it’s a very common Southern thing.
Looks like another winner recipe, can’t wait to try it.
What is “Cavenders Seasoning” ? Where can I purchase it? Safeway? Raley’s? Can I make my own?
I’m in Chico.
Jon: I actually found it at Raley’s in the spice section. But if you can’t find it, any nice spice mix you like will do.
Funny, while I was reading your recipe, I made a mental note to increase the bacon so I could eat some while cooking. Then I get to your instructions. Silly me. Thanks for this, looks really great, versatile and different.