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shameless pleading






There will be potatoes.

Dear Word Detective: A friend of mine apologized to me recently, and I replied, “It’s all gravy,” signifying that there was no harm done. Now I’ll be the first to admit that gravy is indeed awesome, but wouldn’t it have made more sense as “It’s all cake!” or something like that, because it’s sweet? Gravy, or cake for that matter, is pretty far from harmless, as I’m sure many a heart valve can attest. I’m sure this is a recent phrase, but I was very curious about the possible beginnings of “gravy.” — Wordgoblin.

Well, I’m glad you didn’t say, “It’s all good,” which is absolutely the creepiest locution I’ve heard in the last twenty years. I’m not sure why it annoys me so much, but it even beats “No problem” in the place of “You’re welcome,” and that’s a high bar to top. A close runner-up is “I’m fine” in reply to a trivial question such as “Would you like a cup of coffee?” To me, “I’m fine” is what you say after you fall downstairs or survive a fender-bender. If I’m offering you a cuppa joe, chances are I’ve noticed that you aren’t bleeding. So knock it off, people. And get off my lawn.

For a substance defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The fat and juices which exude from flesh during and after the process of cooking; a dressing for meat or vegetables made from these with the addition of condiments,” the humble food known as “gravy” has covered a lot of territory, especially given that it apparently acquired its name through a spelling error. “Gravy” first appeared in English in the late 14th century in translations of Old French cookbooks. In the Old French texts, interestingly, the word was not “gravy,” but “grane,” reflecting the term’s roots in the Old French “grain,” cooking sauce, probably drawn from the Latin “granum” (seed, grain), referring to spices. In any case, the Old French “grane” was misread as “grave,” and it was “gravy” from then on.

When gravy first appeared, however, it wasn’t the gravy we know today. It was a dressing, used on white meat and fish, made of broth, milk of almonds, spices, and wine or ale. (Cheap imitations of the pricey real stuff were known at the time as “gravy bastard.”) But by the late 16th century, “gravy” was the gravy we know today, and the slang and metaphorical uses of the word began to pile up like mashed potatoes on a trucker’s plate.

One of the oldest “gravy” metaphors, appearing in the late 17th century was “to stew in one’s own gravy,” meaning “to suffer the consequences of one’s own poor judgment or bad behavior,” with the implication that the person is, consequently, sweating profusely. But the sense of gravy as a deliciously rich addition to a sumptuous meal made most of the figurative uses of “gravy” quite positive. In the slang of the 19th century theater, for instance, “gravy” was either a very easy role or easily-earned laughter or applause from the audience.

From the early 20th century onward, “gravy” was primarily used as slang for “money, success, riches,” especially if obtained very easily or unexpectedly, or in addition to what might be expected (“If you sell two Cadillacs a month, you make expenses, and anything over that is so much gravy,” John O’Hara, 1934). Finding a secure and lucrative position that required little or no work in return for pots of money was, as of about 1914, to “board the gravy train” or “board the gravy boat,” a pun on the small boat-shaped pitcher of gravy found on many dinner tables (“Once you get on the Hollywood gravy boat, it is no trick to make money; the trick is to keep it,” 1948). But even humble jobs, such as waiting tables, could sometimes produce their own “gravy” (“The tip is called the gravy, and when there is a mix-up at the table and two diners leave separate tips, it becomes double gravy,” 1967).

While gravy is almost certainly bad for you and your arteries, its place in slang remains overwhelmingly positive, and even individual people have been hailed as “gravy” (meaning “excellent” or “the best”) since the early 1900s. Given the golden linguistic glow surrounding “gravy” as a slang term, it makes perfect sense to use “It’s all gravy” to mean “Everything is fine.” I personally have never heard the usage, but I think you should popularize it. It’s snappy, intriguing, colorful, and far, far better than the smarmy “It’s all good.”

3 comments to Gravy

  • Jeff Russell

    The famously overweight US President William Howard Taft not so famously managed to lose significant weight after leaving the White House, by following a diet prescribed by a British doctor. Dr. Blumer. He wrote it out in a letter, and among the things allowed was “gravy, with the fat removed” on his meat. So I am wondering if the 1600s usage survived as late as the early 1900s, at least in Britain, since “gravy, with the fat removed”, makes little sense in the modern usage.

  • Karen Oliver-Paull

    There are two ways of making gravy that I know of, but I am not a chef. However, I have made it both ways since my teens and also lived in the UK for 4 years while in the US Navy. I married a British National and his mother made gravy in the way prescribed by Taft’s doctor as she had severe gall bladder problems and couldn’t eat animal fat. The rue method of mixing flour in with meat dripping and then adding water is what my mother taught me when I was a kid. However, when my dad was diagnosed with high cholesterol, she started making the gravy without fat like my mother-in-law did. This is accomplished by taking the broth of the meat with the fat removed and thickened with corn starch or corn flour as they call it in the UK. It has very few calories, but done correctly can taste marvelous.

  • Karen Oliver-Paull

    Sorry, that should have been roux, not rue. I don’t think you can make gravy from a street.

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