by David Cecelski
My visit to the Early Girl Eatery here in Asheville has me thinking about tomato gravy. It’s a very old Appalachian recipe. It’s usually made with cooked-down tomatoes (fresh or canned), a little flour, a spoonful or two of grease, and salt and pepper. It’s sort of an all-purpose dish. I’ve seen mountain people serve it on biscuits, on grits for breakfast, as a condiment for meat or beans at supper, and as a sauce for beef and pork dishes.
The Early Girl Eatery is one of my favorite places to have tomato gravy. This wonderful restaurant’s chefs are devoted to vegetarian cookery, but they somehow manage to preserve the spirit of that old way of making tomato gravy without using the meat.
With mountain tomatoes being so flavorful, of course, they knew they didn’t have to do much. They just replace the traditional recipe’s bacon grease or fried-out fatback with vegetable oil, and they add chopped onion and a little basil and thyme.
My favorite way that they serve tomato gravy is on fried black bean and sweet potato cakes. I know that doesn’t sound like a traditional Appalachian dish, but it works for me. Sweet potatoes and beans (maybe not black beans, but beans) are mountain staples, after all, and the spirit in which they’re put together in this dish, coupled with the tomato gravy, somehow fits a traditional mountain way of cooking.
You can find Early Girl Eatery’s recipe for black bean/sweet potato cakes with tomato gravy at www.earlygirleatery.com. I make them here at my house and even my son relishes them, which, considering his usual wariness of vegetarian fare, is saying a lot. And you can do a hundred things with the leftover tomato gravy. I usually eat mine with grits for breakfast or on fried grits cakes that I make with leftover grits, a little milk, and cheddar cheese.
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The Early Girl Eatery is located at 8 Wall Street in downtown Asheville. You can reach them at (828) 259-9292 . Check their web site for hours. Expect a wait—but know that it’s worth it.