What's that gravy on your biscuits?

Libbie Sherman shows off her chocolate gravy on biscuits at her home in Lexington, Ky., in March. Sherman learned about chocolate gravy while researching Appalachian foods.

The gravy that most often tops breakfast biscuits is white and full of sausage. But some Southern households serve a different kind of gravy, and it evokes as many fond memories as a warm hug from Grandma.

A chocolate gravy recipe is a prized inheritance among people who live in Appalachia and the Deep South. The usual response from people who live outside the area is, "What's that?"

Fred Sauceman, associate professor of Appalachian studies at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., said origins of dishes like chocolate gravy are hard to pin down because the practice of making them existed long before written documentation began.

Sauceman's theory on chocolate gravy is that when Hershey's cocoa first started appearing on shelves of country stores, cooks devised ways to make meals, not just desserts, using the precious powder in the brown, silver-topped can.

"After all, breakfast biscuits had always soaked up sweetness. Sorghum syrup surrounded them when sugar got scarce. And when the sugar bin was full, mountain people drowned their biscuits in coffee and sprinkled them with Dixie Crystals to create 'soakin's.' "

The "Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America"

theorizes that chocolate gravy might have been an offshoot of a trading network between Spanish Louisiana and the Tennessee Valley, bringing "Mexican-style breakfast chocolate to the Appalachians."

Wayne Winkler, former president of the Melungeon Heritage Association, told Sauceman that he thinks chocolate gravy is well-remembered because, for a lot of people, it was one of the few treats they could look forward to.

"It was an inexpensive way to turn ordinary bread or biscuits into something special," Sauceman said, "something people remember for the rest of their lives."

Clarissa "Moochie" Hart of Russell Springs, Ky., said chocolate gravy is her favorite food.

"My mom used to always fix Sunday morning breakfast before church, which was usually just a big bowl of scrambled eggs for scrambled egg sandwiches. Every now and then, though, she would make chocolate gravy, and that would get us out of bed fast."

She even has suggestions for just how you should eat your gravy.

"This is big," Hart said. "You have to crumble your biscuits; you can't just split your biscuit into two pieces. If you crumble, then the gravy can really saturate better.

"I'm not really sure why I love it so much; maybe because it was such a treat when my mom made it," Hart said. "Sometimes, she would even make it for supper. I can eat it anytime.

Nancy Lyon of Lexington, Ky., said she regrets not having her "beloved mother-in-law's recipe, but I never could make it like hers as she was a pinch-of-this-and-that wonderful cook. I miss her chocolate gravy and mile-high hot biscuits."

Judy F. Love of Lexington was introduced to chocolate gravy almost 30 years ago.

"I was a single mom of three at the time. My pastor's wife and I had been friends since childhood. They had about as much spare money as I did -- not much. But they frequently had us over for a meal. One of those meals was chocolate gravy over homemade biscuits. It really was like a dessert, but since it was served over biscuits, it was the main course. Sweet memories, sweet friends -- and a very sweet treat."

Ingredients

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cocoa (Droste cocoa Dutch-processed)

4 tablespoons flour

3 cups milk

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions

Mix sugar, cocoa and flour together in a saucepan. Cook over low heat, slowly adding milk and butter. Stir constantly to remove any lumps that form. When the mixture reaches a pudding-like consistency, remove from heat and add vanilla.