It's All Gravy: The Industrial History of a Thanksgiving Favorite

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We all know how to make gravy. Take the drippings of whatever beast you've been cooking, add some water, and starch, and cook it down. What results is a delicious gelatinous sauce that people have been relishing for centuries.

Making gravy by hand might seem easy enough, but in the industrial era, anything that can be made faster has been, and fatty, starchy sauces are no exception.

LIFE magazine ads from the 1960s testify to the proliferation of dry mix gravies. Pillsbury offered a "Daring Offer," a free sample of any of its gravy mixes to make good on its promise to beat the taste of all competitors. Meanwhile, Durkee's proclaimed, "All sauce and gravy mixes are made for convenience, but Durkee's is for dining!"

Even now, one can go into any store and find a plethora of little pouches packed with powder. Add water, heat, stir, and it's ready. Indeed, the texture, smell, and taste of these mixes is certainly gravy-like.

But homecooking is to industrial food processing what walking is to flying an airplane. The gravy mix isn't just huge vats of drippings mixed with flour and water. More than a century's worth of food engineering have gone into making a powder you mix with water and microwave in three minutes to manufacture a smooth gravy.

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In many circles, processed foods have come to seem bad, even immoral. What fascinates me, though, is how food engineers look at food. What problems are they trying to solve? What tools do they have at their disposal? What are their points-of-proof and methods? Food engineers don't think about food the way the rest of us do. For them, it's a material like steel or drywall or duct tape. They are concerned with building something and it just so happens that we eat this end result. This isn't the moralizing story that you've heard so many times; this is just how gravy mixes developed, their chemistry and technological history.

Our story begins back in the 19th century. Philip Thorne filed a patent in 1882 for a floury product that could be mixed with water to create an instant dough. "The object of my invention is to manufacture a new and improved prepared flour, which needs only be mixed with water to form a dough for a biscuit; and the invention consists in thoroughly incorporating butter deprived of its water with flour and baking-powder."

But the instant biscuit dough wasn't an instant success. Dry mixes -- just add water! -- didn't really catch on for decades. It wasn't until 1931 that Bisquick came onto the market, and not until the 1950s that the baking aid really took off. Cake mixes like Betty Crocker's followed shortly thereafter and exploded in popularity, becoming what the author of Paradox of Plenty, Harvey Levenstein, called "one of the great marketing success stories of all time." One key trick was that the original mixes just required water, leaving housewives feeling a little left out of the cake making process. So, General Mills switched up the recipe to require cracking a single egg into the mix, then adding water. And in that way, cakes got made. "By 1950, one theme had come to dominate all else: convenience," Levenstein notes.

As in baking, so it went with gravies, too. All kinds of gravy mixes came onto the market, proclaiming their greatness. But gravies were actually a more difficult mix to create. Just like homecooks might like to have gravy without having to actually cook meat, the food processing industry needed to eliminate the actual beef or chicken.

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You could have gravy without all the trouble of making the meat that would generate the drippings. In a curiously parallel movement, the food processing industry also wanted to eliminate actually cooking meat to generate that meaty gravy flavor. In fact, industry actually needed to. It would be far too expensive to cook a bunch of meat, keep the drippings, and throw away the rest.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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