Every time Beenie sneezes, I say what my dad always said to us years ago: "Scat, you old cat! Get your tail out of my gravy!" At our house, it was never "Bless you" or its German counterpart, "Gesundheit." It was always "Scat!"
The other day I found myself wondering why this was so. Was this something peculiar to Dad's family? Was this an idiom related to region? To generation? My friend Google would surely be able to shed some light on the mystery.
A quick online search revealed that "Scat, you old cat . .." and its variations are indeed "Southernisms" commonly used in response to someone's sneezing. Among other things, I learned that even country singer Toby Keith has a song titled "Scat Cat" on his Hope on the Rocks album. The reference appears in the final three lines of the song's chorus: "If a bullet doesn't find me,/They'll let me rot in jail./Scat cat, you've got gravy on your tail."
By now, my mind has branched off into other family figures of speech referencing gravy. In his characteristic style fraught with hyperbole, as an example, Pa-pa always liked to tell our kids the "gravy sandwich" story. His family was so poor when he was growing up, he told them, that they had to take gravy sandwiches to school for lunch.
When times were especially hard, he said, they couldn't even afford bread, so on their way out the door the children would have to file past the cook stove so that their mama could ladle a spoonful of gravy directly into their back pockets.
My father-in-law used to declare that all gravy fell into one of two categories. Brown and white? Nope. He categorized gravy as either "chasin'" if it was on the thin, runny side or "slicin'" if too much flour pushed it over to the thicker side.
Great-grandpa's gravy categories speak to the challenge of making gravy of a perfect consistency, with just the right ratio of grease to flour and then flour to milk. Once this is achieved, the salt and pepper part is easy.
I grew up in a 1960s blue collar family for whom fried meat, mashed potatoes and gravy were staples on the lunch menu. So without really trying, my mom passed on to me the mechanics of gravy-making, and my children, Cookie and Teebo, also grew up with a steady diet of the creamy white stuff.
When I was working, one of my colleagues would shudder at the prospect of white gravy, blaming it alone for the fall of the South. This attitude, along with the tendency of today's families to fall back on the likes of fast-food burgers and pizza, makes me worry that the fine art of gravy-making is destined for extinction.
Therefore, in the interest of preserving this fine family tradition, I will record here how to make gravy. But I warn you--I will have trouble. I will run into the same problem I encounter every time I try to explain to my daughter or my daughter-in-law how it is done.
First, I firmly believe that the best gravy grease comes from either fried chicken or browned, crumbled sausage. (The sausage will make its own; you will have to give the chicken a start using solid shortening.) If you fry your chicken in a big skillet, save about enough grease to cover the bottom.
Whatever you do, DON'T throw away the rest of the grease. Instead, save it to use later when you want to have potatoes and gravy without freshly fried meat. Baby food containers work well for freezing just the right amounts.
To make your gravy, heat the grease until it is hot but not popping. Then, stir in a rounded tablespoon of flour and a little more if needed to make the mixture resemble a thick sauce. Keep stirring as you add milk. I don't really know how much milk; it varies with the exact amounts of grease and flour that are already there. I just know that you pour and stir and pretty soon your instinct tells you when to stop. If it doesn't, well, neither chasin' nor slicin' gravy tastes all that bad.
Finish the mixture off with salt and pepper to suit your taste. (You have to actually taste the gravy to know how much it needs.) Bring the gravy to a gentle boil, keep stirring, and turn the fire off when it reaches the desired thickness. Then, pour it immediately into a bowl for serving.
When I create gravy (I use the word create here because gravy-making is an art), I have to take care not to inhale deeply as I add the pepper. Doing this invariably leads to a sneeze, whereupon someone nearby is likely to say, "Scat, you old cat," and I am lost again in my memories of this good life of mine lived in the savory, abundant presence of a wonderful thing called gravy.