A Place, a Time, a Memory
The Meaning of Thanksgiving
Gimme RiceandgravyFor the Hebert family, the holiday season triggered a never-ending stream of celebration and homecoming. For most of my childhood, five of my mother's siblings lived far from their hometown of Baton Rouge, but returned for some chunk of the 40-day Thanksgiving/Christmas/ New Year's trifecta. During family celebrations, seven cars blocked the grandparents' driveway on Morning Glory Avenue, most with out-of-state plates (Illinois, Texas, Colorado) and tires still warm from multi-day highway drives. Inside the house, packs of local and exiled cousins reunited in joyous chaos as siblings-turned-parents laughed over extended "coffee visits." And somehow, our reigning matriarch -- Lorelle "Mama" Seal Hebert -- kept the frenetic crowds in check.
Like most Louisiana families, we celebrated homecomings and holidays alike around Mama's kitchen table. Traditional holidays called for traditional dishes (Thanksgiving turkey, New Year's black-eyed peas and cabbage) as well as some notable family twists (hot biscuits with cold pork roast on Christmas morning). But if a carload of Hebert children were somewhere on an inbound interstate, Mama's stove was busy with the official homecoming meal: roast beef, rice, and gravy.
Sometime before I was born, constant requests for Mama's roast turned the dish into a reflexive celebratory menu. During the non-holiday season, a garlic-spiked roast was a Sunday afternoon standby and the fallback for whenever "somebody's coming in." During the blasting heat of summer or the cold wet wintertime, "roastriceandgravy" (our fast-talking contraction) signaled impending reunion -- with all the chaos and largesse that it implied.
Like many prized family recipes, the beef itself was a pretty simple affair. A sizable rump roast (prized for its protective layer of outside fat) was seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little flour to aid in browning. The secret ingredient was, of course, garlic -- a few cloves sliced into spikes and inserted into the meat with a paring knife. After a quick roast (20 minutes at 425ö, according to our family historian Noel Hebert Prescott), a slow bake (20 minutes a pound at 325ö), and about 20 minutes of moist heat, the roast was suffused with the savory flavor of garlic and coated with a well-browned crust of flour and simple spices. At the top of her game, Mama could prep a roast -- wash, pat, spike, spice -- and throw it in the Magnalite in three minutes flat. To this day, the walls of Morning Glory are saturated with the heady aroma of "roast in the oven."
But for all the simple joys of slow-cooked beef, the real magic flowed to the bottom of the roaster. As the roast baked, the fat basted the meat and mixed with caramelizing beef juices to form a crisp crust on the pan. In the last few minutes of cooking, a cup of water liquefied the garlicky pan drippings to form what can only be described as God's own gravy. Thin in texture, flecked with shards of beef and more flavorful than the law allows, this simple gravy (whisked and served in the roaster) turned a table full of far-flung relations into one harmonious well-fed tribe.
A perfect plate of "roastriceandgravy" included a few thick slices of roast resting on a mound of slightly sticky medium-grain rice and a few spoonfuls of tiny sweet peas with a little oleo for flavor. A mix of seasonal vegetables served from a crush of Tupperware containers or serving bowls filled out the rest of the plate -- string beans flavored with slab bacon, okra smothered in with tomato, bright yellow squash, or cold pineapple chunks -- with slices of gooshy white bread slathered with lemon-yellow homemade mayonnaise on the side.
And among the family's heavier eaters -- hard-eating boys of all ages -- a heaping plate would disappear in a matter of minutes, and the multi-serving wrangling would begin. At most mealtimes, Mama could almost supernaturally compel guests to take "just a little bit more." But when it came to riceandgravy, Mama took a harder line on portion control. Second helpings were usually fine, and sometimes even thirds, but when it got down to fourth servings, she'd slip into "full fuss" mode -- even if she liked to see her boys eat.
The truly gifted riceandgravy eaters -- including myself and Noel's Husband Known As Jimbo -- always managed to get in an extra dose before being shooed away from the rangetop. Those of us dedicated to the cause developed an intuitive, almost supernatural feel for "gravy physics" that allowed us to dip a serving spoon at the perfect shallow, near-horizontal angle for full spoons without tipping the hulking Magnalite roaster up on one edge. If you could do it while Mama was distracted, then you'd have another few bites of pure heaven. If you attracted even a little attention, you'd hear her homecoming battle call "Get away from that pot, Pauljohnson," and she'd flick trespassers away with a dishtowel or soapy hands, hoping to rescue the last few drops of the precious gravy, saying, "Save some for somebody else."
But even now that I run my own kitchen, I wait for the first solid cold fronts to make a roast for my more deserving friends. I carefully spike the roast and coat it with a healthy dose of coarse black pepper and a little salt. When it's all done, my house smells like Mama's kitchen and a holiday homecoming on Morning Glory.
My friends get to help me eat the roast. I don't tell them about the gravy.
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