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Pleasure Practices with Sami Schalk: Nostalgia foods

On family meals, memories, and spicy sausage gravy.

Illustration by Rodney Lambright II.

Recently, I had a craving for something hearty and rich. I decided to make a spicy version of the sausage gravy I used to have back in Kentucky where I grew up. 

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Nostalgia foods have been a frequent pleasure practice for me lately. It started around the holidays when I couldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas with loved ones in the ways I was used to doing. I still wanted some sense of familiarity, so I ordered this breakfast food from the northern Kentucky/Cincinnati area called goetta to be shipped to me on dry ice. 

Eating it for the first time in a few years brought back so many memories of my childhood. I used to turn my nose up at this exact food that now brings me such pleasure. Goetta originated with poor German immigrant folks trying to stretch their meat supplies. Made from various pork parts, beef, and pinhead oats then spiced and fried in thick slices, it’s similar to scrapple and definitely not good for you.

Food as pleasure practice isn’t merely about the taste and the sustenance. It’s also about the memories and associations food can invoke for us. For me, food memories are particularly tied to my grandmother, who used to cook dinner every single Sunday for my entire extended family. (My mom is one of 10, so with spouses and kids, it was more than 20 people each week! Catholics, man.)

During lockdown, my grandma taught me to make her apple pie and when I had my first bite it immediately brought me back to that crowded little house with the noise of my uncles yelling at a Bengals game in the background as I helped mash the potatoes and set the table. 

As a queer Black person no longer in touch with much of my family of origin, I don’t go back to small-town Kentucky very often, but it’s a delight for me to still be able to tap into some positive sensory memory from there through nostalgia foods.

I hope this spicy sausage gravy brings you some joy and maybe encourages you to seek out your own nostalgia foods as well.


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Spicy Sausage Gravy

 -1/2 lb sausage (mild or spicy depending on your tastes. For my vegetarian friends, I recommend Alpha Foods sausage crumbles, which I get at Woodman’s)

-1 cup milk

-1 heaping tablespoon flour

-1 teaspoon seasoned salt (I like Slap Ya Mama Original Cajun Blend, Lawry’s is fine too)

-1 teaspoon black pepper

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-1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

-1/2 teaspoon chili powder

-Red pepper flakes to taste

Note about seasonings: Look, I’ve lived in Wisconsin for almost four years now so I’ve learned that “Wisconsin spicy” just means, like, mildly seasoned. If you don’t like spicy things I recommend using mild sausage, cutting the red pepper flakes and chili powder, and maybe using regular salt rather than seasoned.

First, cook your sausage in a medium-sized pan on medium-high. Break up the meat well. If you’re using veggie sausage, add a tablespoon of oil to make sure there’s enough fat for the flour to stick.

Once your (faux) meat is cooked, turn down the temperature to medium and add the flour. Stir consistently until it’s absorbed with the oils and sausage and looks slightly golden brown. 

Next, slowly add half the milk and stir consistently for a minute or until it starts to thicken, then add the other half of the milk along with your seasonings. Stir occasionally until it’s slightly runnier than you want (it will thicken as it cools). Turn to low. Taste that shit. If it needs more salt or spice, add it. When you get the flavor how you like it, remove from heat and serve it up in any number of ways.

Serving suggestions: Put it on a biscuit. Put it over some eggs. Put it on some hash browns or other potato product. Make a southern version of eggs benedict with an English muffin, eggs, bacon slices, and spicy sausage gravy on top. Eat it while listening to “Spice Up Your Life” by the Spice Girls. Pour it directly into your mouth. Your options are only as limited as your imagination, babe. 

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