Publisher’s Note: This year we are partnering with the Arkansas Cornbread Festival and the UALR department of English for a writing contest open to all UALR students and alumni. Each person is asked to write a short fiction, nonfiction, or poetry piece exploring the intersection of food and culture. The submissions were judged by a panel of UALR writers.
Tomata Gravy by Eva Legg
My grandmother lived in El Paso, Arkansas. The town was only about a mile wide in all diameters on highway five between Cabot and Rose Bud. That’s where she also owned a small business called Ellen’s Beauty Shop located behind the El Paso fire station. And near her shop, she lived down a small gravel road called Patrom Lane, which is named after her husband. At the end of that gravel road they owned and occupied a beautiful cedar home that my grandfather built for my great grandmother before she passed away. That is where my family has always had our holiday gatherings. Holiday gatherings were always exciting and full of people, but it was always those Christmas mornings at Granny’s house that is longed for throughout the year.
Christmas morning was the one day out of the year that my family in its entirety would be together. And on those mornings in particular there was always chatter about tomata gravy. An older cousin would say
“I hope she made enough of that tomata gravy this time.”
I would eventually ask, “why do we only have it on Christmas?”
“Because hunny, this is the time a year that we have all of the family together.”
My Aunt Terri replied as she passed by. Children are running around trying to stay out from under the elders. My Aunt Terri made her way to the kitchen where my Aunt Kathy, Aunt June, and Aunt Angie would all be arguing about who’s job was who’s.
“I’ll start on the biscuits Angie. Mine is always better.”
“Um, no they’re not Kathy! Terri, tell your sister to get out of the kitchen and go watch her kids.”
“ Ya’ll stop arguin’ and help me patty up this sausage.”
“Will someone make another pot of coffee.”
“June, did you get them tomatas and fruit sliced up yet?”
“Hurry up and get them biscuits in the oven Angie. Granny’s about to start the tomata gravy.”
My grandmother stood leaned away from the stove top and yelled over the sound of crackling bacon at all of them.
“Shush up and somebody get a start on them dishes.”
We all knew it was almost time to eat when the biscuits were halfway baked, and Granny started on the gravy. So, I moved my way in the kitchen to help, sneak a slice of tomata, and catch a glimpse of how to make that gravy.
“Hay Aunt June, let me help you plate the melon.”
It was right beside the island stove where I had the perfect window to watch my Granny work.
She started with bacon grease, added some flour to make a rue, she cooked it until it was a golden brown color, then added salt and pepper, then added a jar of homegrown stewed tomatas. At the end she would add some water to give it the consistency that was thin enough to pour from the ladle.
Granny pulled a batch of biscuits out of the oven, and yelled with her distinctive strong womanly voice: “FOODS READY!” The kids playing outside would come running in through the screen door. My Uncle Joe would meet them at the end of the couch.
“AYE, slow down now. Take off them shoes, and go wash your hands before you step a foot in that kitchen.”
Soon enough everyone would be single file line in the kitchen. We would grab from the stack of plates and work our way through the path between the island and the counters. My cousin Josh and I would buddy up and sit together because we were the same age and had more to talk about. He was a big tall guy with black hair, and a red tinted beard, and country as country is.
“Aye Eva, would you mind puttin’ a slice a ham on my plate? Oh, and a biscuit. I need that for my gravy.”
I surveyed the food. It would be the first time I’d consciously eat the gravy. My Aunt Kathy slapped a ladle of it on my biscuits.
“Here ya are babygirl.”
It was a slight yellowish brown color from the bacon grease, the pieces of tomatas were a washed out red color.
My cousin and I parked a spot on the floor next to the christmas tree and the presents. Because the adults of course got first dibs of the table, and living room seats.
“Eva, I bet I know what Granny got us for Christmas.”
“Oh yea, I bet I can guess too.”
When you’re a teenager you would get things like perfume, a gift card and deodorant all from the Avon magazine my grandmother sold and bought from. I tipped the top of a bag present over just slightly enough to peek what’s inside. My dad tapped me on the shoulder as he passed by.
“Be good now, Evie.”
Then my little cousin Sophie sat down in my lap.
“Eba, can I have a bite?”
I cut her a piece of biscuit ‘n gravy with my fork, then I would fix myself a bite. It wasn’t what I expected. The gravy was savory from the bacon grease, and sorta sweet from the tomatas. I guess you could sorta compare it to the combination of the bacon, lettuce, tomata sandwich. The texture is of course the typical texture of gravy, but the taste was divine. I took a look around and I noticed faces I hadn’t seen at our Thanksgiving or Easter gatherings. They were family members I knew, but only got to see on Christmas mornings at Granny’s house. I got a glimpse of their plates, and of course they had some tomata gravy. I guess it wouldn’t be fair that family that lived so far away would miss other gatherings, so to create this sense of unity with the family, we would only have tomata gravy on Christmas morning.