My grandfather was a passionate home cook. You might not think that odd today, but in the rural Deep South of the Depression era, the kitchen was a woman’s province; men cooked at home only out of necessity. In my grandparents’ household, however, it was MaMa who did that. She was a good cook and an exceptional baker, but she cooked because she had to.
Granddaddy, on the other hand, loved every aspect of bringing food to the table. A farmer in his early life and a butcher from the time my mother was a little girl, the only thing that gave him more pleasure than growing things in his garden or carefully selecting and hand-cutting a piece of prime meat was bringing those things to perfection in the pot.
MaMa did most of the weekday cooking, but Sundays were Granddaddy’s day in the kitchen. An early riser by nature and poster boy for the Psalm “I was glad when they said we will go into the Lord’s House”, it was no time for him to sleep in. He was up before the sun, making breakfast and getting the big midday dinner started before time for church.
When the main dish was pot roast, it would often be in the oven before the rest of us were up, and we’d wake to its aroma mingling with that of fat patties of his homemade sausage sizzling in a pan.
He learned to make pot roast from his mother, who, being a farm-wife solidly rooted in the nineteenth century, would never have allowed so much as a bottle of store-bought ketchup within a mile of her kitchen. Granddaddy, on the other hand, readily embraced the bottled sauces on the shelf at his store, and loved to experiment with them.
Granddaddy’s Pot Roast
1 tablespoon bacon drippings (preferred), rendered beef fat, or unsalted butter
3 pounds boneless chuck roast or 5 pounds bone-in roast
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
About 2 cups beef broth or water
2 large yellow onions, trimmed, peeled, and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon unbleached, all-purpose flour
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 300-325° F. and fit a covered roaster or Dutch oven with a roasting rack. In a cast iron skillet, melt the fat over medium heat and when it is quite hot, brown the meat thoroughly on all sides. Remove the beef and season well with salt and pepper. Deglaze the skillet with broth or water and pour it into a covered roaster or Dutch oven. Turn off the heat.
Cover the roasting rack with half the onions. Place the beef over them and sprinkle it with Worcestershire. Cover it with the onions and sprinkle them with a little more salt, pepper and Worcestershire. Cover tightly and bake until the beef is almost falling-apart tender, about 3 hours.
Remove the meat to a platter and let it rest, covered, at least 15 minutes. Skim off the excess fat from the pan juices, reserving 2 tablespoons. Warm the reserved fat in the browning skillet over medium heat. Stir in the flour, and cook, stirring constantly, until smooth and lightly browned. Gradually stir in the pan juices, bring to a simmer, and simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened about 4 minutes. Adjust the seasoning and pour it into a warm sauceboat.
Take the onions off the top of the roast, slice, and arrange it on a platter. Drizzle it with some of the gravy and scatter the onions over it. Serve warm, passing the remaining gravy separately.
Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. He lives and eats in Savannah, Georgia.
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