Rice & Gravy

My Rouses Everyday, September & October 2018

For most of my childhood, many of my mother’s seven siblings lived far from Baton Rouge, but usually returned for some chunk of the year-end Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year trifecta. When the prodigals returned, seven cars blocked the grandparent’s driveway and a chunk of Morning Glory Avenue, most sporting out-of-state plates (Illinois, Texas, Colorado) and tires still warm from multiday highway drives.

Inside the house, packs of local and exiled cousins reunited in joyous chaos as siblings-turned-parents laughed over extended “coffee visits.” And somehow, our grandmother and reigning matriarch, Mamma (aka Lorelle), kept the frenetic crowds in check. And just like clockwork, the prodigals arrived hungry and primed for the Hebert Roast.

Well before I was born in the mid 1960s, constant requests for Mamma’s roast turned the dish into a reflexive celebratory meal. During the non-holiday season, a garlic-spiked roast was a Sunday afternoon standby and the fallback for the times when “somebody’s coming in.” During the blasting heat of summer or the cold wet wintertime, “roastriceandgravy” (our fast-talking contraction) signaled impending reunion — with all the chaos and largesse that a homecoming implied.

Like many prized family recipes, the beef itself was a pretty simple affair. A sizeable rump or sirloin tip roast (prized for the protective layer of outside fat) was seasoned with salt, pepper and a little flour to aid in browning. The secret ingredient was, of course, garlic — a few cloves sliced into spikes and inserted into the meat with a paring knife. After a quick roast (20 minutes at 425, according to tradition), a slow bake (20 minutes a pound at 325), and about 20 minutes of moist heat, the roast was suffused with the savory flavor of garlic and coated with a well-browned crust of flour and simple spices. At the top of her game, Mamma could prep a roast — wash, pat, spike, spice — and throw it in her beloved Magnalite roaster in three minutes flat. To this day, I bet the walls of the Morning Glory house are saturated with the heady aroma of “roast in the oven.”

But for all the simple joys of the slow-cooked beef, the real magic gathered to the bottom of the roaster. As the beef roasted, the fat melted and mixed with caramelizing beef juices in the pan, forming a crisp, flavorful crust. In the last few minutes of cooking, a little water mixed in helped the garlicky pan drippings to form what can only be described as God’s own gravy. Thin in texture, flecked with shards of beef and more flavorful than the law allows, this simple gravy (whisked and served right in the roaster) turned a table full of far-flung relations into one harmonious and well-fed tribe.

A perfect plate of “roastriceandgravy” included a few thick slices of roast resting on a mound of slightly sticky medium-grain rice and a few spoonfuls of tiny sweet peas with a little oleo for flavor. A mix of seasonal vegetables served from a crush of Tupperware containers or serving bowls filled out the rest of the plate — string beans flavored with slab bacon, okra smothered with tomato, buttery, bright yellow squash or ice-cold pineapple chunks — all accompanied by slices of “gooshy” white bread slathered with lemon-yellow homemade mayonnaise on the side.

Among the family’s heavier eaters — big-eating boys of all ages — a heaping plate would disappear in just a few bites, and the multi-serving wrangling would begin. At most mealtimes, Mamma could almost supernaturally compel guests to take “just a little bit more.” But when it came to roastriceandgravy, Mama took a stricter line on portion control. Second helpings — sometimes even thirds — were usually fine, but when it got down to a fourth trip to the stove, she’d slip into “full fuss” mode — even though she liked to see her boys eat.

The truly gifted roastriceandgravy eaters — including myself and The Uncle Known As Jimbo — always managed to get in an extra dose before being shooed away from the rangetop. Those of us dedicated to the cause developed an intuitive, almost supernatural feel for “gravy physics” that provided us the uncanny ability to dip a serving spoon at the optimal shallow, near-horizontal angle to achieve a heaping spoonful without tipping the hulking Magnalite roaster up on one edge. If you could do it while Mamma was distracted, then you’d be able to enjoy another few bites of pure heaven. If you attracted even a little attention, you’d hear her battle call: “Get away from that pot, pauljohnson!” And she’d flick away with a dishtowel or soapy hands, hoping to rescue the last few drops of the precious gravy: “Save some for other people!”
Now that I run my own kitchen, I wait for the first solid cold fronts to make a roast for my more deserving friends. I carefully spike the roast, coat it with a healthy dose of coarse black pepper and a little salt. When it’s all done, my house smells like Mamma’s kitchen and a holiday homecoming on Morning Glory.

My friends get to help me eat the roast. I don’t tell them about the gravy.