The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Marcia Ball

may 09 gravy marciaI get to cook about half the time. We play about 125 gigs a year, so I’m only here about half the time. I’m also blessed with a husband who cooks and really, he’s the foodie in the family, the more adventurous; the more interesting cook. He’ll open a cookbook and do something creative. I, on the other hand, will come in and make a gumbo or an etouffée or something out of my head, the same old stuff. I love to cook smothered pork chops or round steak. I don’t use tomato; I don’t put tomato in almost anything. I finally learned to eat spaghetti and pizza, but when I was a kid I didn’t like anything that had tomato gravy on it.

I grew up in Vinton, Louisiana. It’s interesting, even then I could recognize the different styles of Louisiana cooking. The brown gravies were different from the way my grandmother in New Orleans cooked. New Orleans seemed to have more of what you call the holy trinity, more aware of the bell pepper and the celery and the onion. Whereas down in Vinton or Lafayette—my other grandmother was from Lafayette—you just really got a brown gravy that was just brown. With onion, mainly. Didn’t use much of the bell pepper or the celery. I’m not a big celery fan, either. This is my guilty secret; I like raw celery, but I don’t like celery in food. I’m not crazy about the texture so I just leave it out. But garlic, green onions and parsley, I love all that stuff, so I do that. Often, I use the white part of the green onion when I put in the rest of the onion, and then I put the green onion [tops] on top, at the end. I will never forget the first time I ate at Chez Helene in New Orleans and that wonderful gumbo with a sprinkle of fresh green onion on top, across it, it was just like art, beautiful. That was the first time I became aware of the art of the presentation. That was 25 years ago.

Daddy’s favorite meal was round steak cooked the same way as my mother’s smothered pork chops but without the sugar, and served with rice and gravy and cream-style corn. My favorite meal was the smothered pork chops with mashed potatoes and canned sweet peas with a little bit of bacon grease and onion. Mostly it was rice; mashed potatoes would be like a special treat because we were in rice country.

My mother grew up near Thibodaux, in Labadieville, and that’s something else. In Vinton, we didn’t eat a lot of crawfish. Crawfish was something we ate when we went down to Thibodaux to visit my aunts. I remember going to New Orleans for Easter and seeing all the cars stopped along Airline Highway, the whole road from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, and people were down there crawfishing by the side of the road where the bayous crossed.

Me sticking to Louisiana cooking probably means that I’m lazy, and also that I married a guy who cooks. It used to be my trick—buy whatever I thought I wanted for supper and come in and flop it on the counter and start rattling pots and pans. Gordon would come in and take over and I would make a salad. He’ll reduce sauces and he cooks with wine, braises lamb shanks. Right now, I’m exploring some Asian food. I made my first coconut milk soup. And for years, for my kids, the Thai beef salad. I use sirloin and cut it across the grain, real thin, and flash it in the pan, real rare, and do a bed of lettuce and tomato and thin slices of red and green bell pepper and onion, thin slivers, and some peanuts and a little bit of fish sauce and lots and lots of lime juice and green onion tops and mint and basil all tossed in there. That’s what my son wanted for his birthday dinner last August. He was 33. When I turned 33, a layer of insecurity and uncertainty fell away that made me more comfortable in my skin.”

Marcia Ball’s Mother’s Smothered Pork Chops

8 thin-cut pork chops
black pepper
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1 yellow onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tablespoon flour

Season pork chops with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a heavy pot, cast-iron or Magnalite Dutch oven. Add sugar and let it caramelize, “it burns pretty much.” Add pork chops and “flop ’em around.” When thoroughly smeared, add onion and garlic. Fry for a few minutes. Add 1/2 cup water to start the gravy. Dissolve flour in another 1/2 cup water and add to pot. Cover and simmer over low heat for at least 30 minutes, adding more water if necessary. You want a rich—not soupy—gravy.