by Jeanine DeHoney
Jeanine’s essay appears in episode 40 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
I blame my father for making me fall in love with jazz and red eye gravy. Growing up in Brownsville, East New York, in our fifth-floor housing development apartment, Friday and Saturday nights found it transformed into my father’s makeshift jazz conservatory.
My father’s dream was to be a jazz musician. For a while he played a few gigs at clubs in Harlem but the money he made playing music wasn’t enough to sustain us as a family, only the urgings in his soul. So, he drove a delivery truck until he was able to get a civil service janitorial job at the post office.
My father’s nickname was Sonny and that was what he allowed me and my older sister to call him instead of Dad. Although others shook their heads thinking it was bad-mannered, to him it made him the cool dad. Our father loved being a girl dad. You could just see it in the way he gleamed. Sometimes I think we had him wrapped around our fingers, my sister and I. And he made sure to let us know this on many occasions, like when we were getting piggyback rides around the house, or watching television, or going to the candy store to get our favorite licorice sticks and so many other times that we were his world.
He once made a record that I bragged to all of my friends about and showed off like a prized heirloom whenever they came to our apartment after school. I remember placing it on the record player one day when he wasn’t home and the needle scratched it when I moved it to another part of the song. I hid it for a week worried he’d be upset, but when he found it; he wasn’t. At least not in front of me.
After my father would set up his rickety metal music stand that he bought from a music shop in Manhattan in my bedroom, putting a pencil behind his ear so that he could make notations on his sheet music to play his saxophone, he would put a jazz album on the record player and then make his special breakfast.
As Miles Davis or Betty Carter or Sonny Rollins or Sarah Vaughan blared on our record player, he would get out the pots and pans to start cooking. Sunny side eggs with his and my mother’s yokes runnier than mine, thick country ham slices, creamy grits, and always red eyed gravy.
Red eye gravy was a southern dish passed down to my father from my grandmother. I remember visiting her in her apartment in Brooklyn and seeing her making it as a child. I remember sitting at her kitchen dinette after waking up from a sleepover with my cousins who lived beneath her. My grandfather called it poor man’s gravy but I never liked that name. Even though my grandparents struggled to raise their family and lived in a tenement, my grandmother always said she was rich because she had all of us, her family.
While at my grandmother’s, my cousins and I would all trek up one flight of stairs to her kitchen. Our grandfather would entertain us with his humorous tall tales and we’d count the minutes until she set everyone’s food on the table and we could eat. My grandmother always made buttermilk biscuits and I’d always have a biscuit to sop up every drop of her red eye gravy.
Red eye gravy was made from the drippings of country ham and strong brewed black coffee. It got its name from the appearance of circles of ham fat floating on top of the coffee that gave the appearance of a red eye staring up at you.
To get the best country ham, both my grandmother and father would go to the neighborhood butcher to get it. My grandmother’s butcher was just around the corner from her apartment. It was the only butcher she patronized until it closed many years later when I was almost a teenager. This small butcher shop with piles of sawdust on the floor and the butcher asking about everyone in your family and always giving his regular’s a little extra at a great price and a lollipop for the kids was displaced by a large chain supermarket and a society that wanted to do one-stop shopping.
After my father made breakfast and his famed red eye gravy, and as jazz melodies filled every crevice of our two-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor, with each forkful we put into our mouths, bubbly with conversations that we didn’t have enough time for during the week, we’d bop our heads and tap our feet to the jazzy beat. Sometimes when our plates were clear, my father would grab me to dance.
The jazz; the sweet sound of the saxophone, the piano, trumpet, or lyrics, of whatever jazz artist was playing on our record player while we ate the special breakfast with red eye gravy that my father prepared, made our hearts sing, especially my father’s. Jazz, playing it on his golden saxophone or listening to it as he sat in his recliner, had always carried him away from the things he didn’t talk about, his past inner wounds, to infuse him with peace.
As I got older, I would stand beside my father, studying his movements as he made his red eye gravy, just as I did my grandmother. I’d watch as he’d take the country ham slice out of the butcher paper, fry it in a cast iron skillet, seasoned with love as my grandmother would say, before mixing the ham drippings with his leftover black coffee in the coffee maker to deglaze the pan.
My father never veered from how my grandmother would make hers, except the one time he ran out of coffee and used a can of coke. It was still good but we all preferred the original way it was made. Sometimes when we had leftover red eye gravy after breakfast, he’d put it over rice and whatever meat we had for dinner.
I carried that recipe for red eye gravy passed down from my grandmother to my father and then to myself, into adulthood. Although my own children didn’t love it as much as I did, it was a familial rite of passage I tried to uphold if only for a special holiday breakfast, and even if I was the lone devourer.
Always, there was the accompaniment of jazz music blaring as I two-stepped around my own kitchen, stirring and sautéing what was in each pan on the burner. For me, music and food is synonymous with healing one’s soul.
I now know how it healed my father. As a black man, he had his share of battles. Especially when he was a Black Army serviceman stationed in Germany. He fought two wars, as a serviceman and as a Black man. It was difficult for him to get good-paying jobs to take care of his family when he came back home. And it was difficult for his musical soul when he got a job and couldn’t pursue his dream career as a saxophonist. He chose to give it up but it weighed heavily upon him. As it would have been for me if I could never put my words on paper again, If I had to choose between family and writing.
My beloved jazz artist father died in 1996. He had been sick for many years with kidney problems and was on dialysis. He had long stopped making those Saturday morning breakfasts with his signature red eye gravy after my sister and I left his and my mother’s nest and journeyed into the different seasons of our lives. But there will always be wonderful memories that envelop me, catch my heart that makes me both smile and cry, and wish I were by his side stirring what was aromatic in the skillet. A memory that hums in my mind like a song, of our special Saturday morning breakfasts, of that delectable red eye gravy and all that jazz.
Original artwork by Alex Knighten
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