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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Gravy

Is it ALL gravy, really? And is a gravy train a good place to be? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Gravy! Can it be spoiled by too many cooks? Does the presidentially pardoned turkey have a better life than the one destined for your gravy-soaked dinner plate? Let’s find out with these gravy fun facts.

Lie #1: “It’s All Gravy!”

It is NOT all gravy. There are lots of things that aren’t gravy. Here are 50 things that aren’t gravy: a nice horse, a brown basket, a pair of old shoes, an acoustic guitar, a folding table, a shiny box, a mysterious scar, an unidentified fossil, a family secret, a terrified snail, a silly party, an unused whiteboard, a discount laptop, an angry neighbor, an uncomfortable sweatshirt, a blunt pencil, an underwhelming novel, a handsome engineer, a pleasant evening, a washing machine, a lovely cup of coffee, a door that has been kicked off its hinges, the line outside a GameStop before the release of an exciting new console, a carpet-cleaning business, an abandoned sandwich, an instruction manual, a LEGO windmill, a magnetic souvenir from a cheerful day at the zoo, a printer cartridge, a pneumatic drill, a recycling plant, a toddler’s spoon, a crafty butcher, an overpriced stapler, a fishing magazine, an educational podcast, an erotic memory, a wonderful cheesecake, an under-rehearsed dance routine, a marriage of convenience, a poached egg, a magic toilet, a scary puppet, an enormous tree, a grubby window, an out-of-town big-box store, a sexist koala, a leather armchair, a cease-and-desist letter from a major media conglomerate and a bedside reading lamp. 

None of those things are gravy at all, and anyone who says they are is a LIAR.

Lie #2: The Turkey’s Been Pardoned! The Turkey’s Going To Live! 

It’s a cute tradition, the pardoning thing where the president pardons a turkey. They’re offered it to eat, of course, in an official presentation by the National Turkey Federation, and making a bit of a pantomime of pardoning it is certainly cuter than, for instance, biting its head off and spitting blood everywhere while yelling “I LOVE TURKEY” like a kid trying Pringles for the first time and making a big unstatesmanlike mess, or whipping out a Swiss Army knife and jabbing it into one birdy eye then the other, grinning like a big ol’ crazy bastard the whole time. Either of those other options would be a bit much really. Pardoning, though? Great!

It’s quite a new tradition. It happened every now and then in the past — Lincoln pardoned a turkey at the request of his son Tad, and JFK opted to let one live just three days before his assassination, although never used the word “pardon” — but the brunt of the time, El Prez was given a turkey, posed for a photo with it and ate the motherfucker. Harry Truman is frequently mentioned as having pardoned a turkey, but according to archivists at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, that’s all nonsense. They told the Washington Post: “The Trumans were not animal people. … The poultry board gave [Truman] turkeys every year, and we think they probably ended up on the dinner table.”

It was George H.W. Bush, on Thanksgiving 1989, who began the tradition as it now goes. In 1987, Ronald Reagan made a bit of a gag about pardoning one as a distraction when being grilled about Oliver North and Iran-Contra, but it was Bush Senior who properly made it a thing. 

How have they fared, then? Turkeys naturally live for about 10 years, but are primed for slaughter at the age of about five months, so every bird that predates Obama isn’t even worth investigating: They’re manifestly hella dead.

It turns out being pardoned by the president doesn’t guarantee a long life either. All of Obama’s pardoned birds — two a year — are confirmed dead other than, maybe, maybe, one of the ones from 2015. Trump’s pair from 2017 are also dead, but 2018 and 2019’s birds — Peas, Carrots, Butter and Bread — all reside at Gobbler’s Rest in Virginia. in 2018, Trump did a bit of a routine about what an asshole a turkey would be to refuse to accept an election result, which would be funny if goddamn anything was anymore. But, yeah, even if pardoned, fuck being a turkey, it sucks.

Lie #3: French Fries and Gravy: That’s Canada’s Favorite Food!

Poutine is a cheap comfort food, so there’s no definitive origin story for it. At least five Québec towns claim to be its birthplace, with different tales of how the fries/gravy/curds combo got its name. Did it come from a French phrase meaning “a bloody mess”? Was it the word “pudding” made into French? Was it a mangling of the nickname of a member of the kitchen staff, or a jokey term for a husky gentleman? All these claims are made, and none are proven — for most of the six or so decades that poutine has been around, it hasn’t been the kind of food that’s studied or chronicled.

However, it’s become a bit of a hipster treat over the past few years, with approximations/reinterpretations cropping up all over the world. The U.S. has obviously gone for it — Boston is apparently slightly out of control — but name a city at random, like Madrid, and heyo, you can get poutine there.  

Its global popularity has done a lot for the concept of curds, after the creatine boom of the early 2000s did so much for its nursery-rhyme associate whey. But it’s almost always referred to internationally as a Canadian dish, something that doesn’t necessarily delight everyone in Québec.

As Allan Woods from the Toronto Star’s Québec bureau wrote in 2017, “It was embraced neither by Quebec’s elite, who looked to France for their culinary references, nor English Canada, which laughed off the meal as proof as solid as your hardened arteries that, yes, perhaps Quebec was a distinct society after all.” Now that it’s seen as having transcended its working-class roots into something of credible culinary value, and served with everything from kimchi to foie gras in fine-dining establishments (as well as, er, McDonald’s), Canada is delighted to have it, but it was once used as shorthand to mock the Québécois.

A 2016 paper in the journal Cuizine proposed “a working definition of poutine as a new dish classification label in its own right (just like sandwiches, dumplings, soups, flatbreads or sushi),” as well as suggesting poutine’s “Canadization” exposed the threat of Québécois cultural absorption by Canada. The author of the paper told the New York Times, “Like Céline Dion, poutine was once mocked and underappreciated in Québec.”

Lie #4: “All Aboard the Gravy Train!”

This… doesn’t mean anything. Or, it does — “gravy train” refers to an easy and lucrative way of living — but nobody seems to really know why. “Railroad lingo” is the best explanation anybody seems to have, and that’s totally unverifiable. You can explain pretty much anything by saying “railroad lingo,” everyone knows that.

It’s odd that gravy is associated with wealth — while it can often be thick, rich and luxurious, it’s a cheap food, a byproduct of cooking meat and cleverly salvaging all the flavor available from every part of it. The flamboyance and frivolity the expression is associated with don’t gel with the idea of clinging onto the juices of a cooked animal to make it go further.

Could it be “a gray vee, trained”? Geese and ducks fly in a V-shaped formation, as any Emilio Estevez fan knows, and one such formation is known as a vee. Could such a formation of gray geese (anser anser, for instance, or anser brachyrhynchus), who have been taught how to behave, be “a gray vee, trained”? Yeah? Maybe? 

You can’t get on board it though, unless you’re tiny, so it’s all bullshit.

Lie #5: Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth

Too many of anything is detrimental, of course — that is what “too many” means. But is a broth ruined by excessive kitchen staff the worst-case scenario, brothwise? The alternative to too many cooks is not enough cooks, which in a professional catering environment is absolutely less desirable than an overabundance of such people. 

A search of Yelp for “overstaffed” produces 7,490 results, while the same search for “understaffed” produces 356,000. Understaffing is an issue. Very few restaurants, especially in this financial climate, have more chefs than they know what to do with, all insisting on fucking about with an already totally adequate pan of broth. You know how much everyone likes it, broth, yeah?

While a disappointing broth is obviously a shame, a surfeit of chefs is unlikely to be the culprit. In fact, chefs are more likely to suffer from too much broth than vice versa — a University of Alberta study specifically cited reaching for gravy as a risk factor for back injuries. So, if anything, too many broths could spoil the cook. 

(Shit, it turns out broth is not a kind of gravy, fuck, fuck.)