Family Recipe Project: Rosa Estep’s Chocolate Gravy

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When I look at the words “chocolate gravy” written on a page, my mind wants to separate them like two children fighting on a playground. When they’re not together, they’re good words.

But, strung together, they suggest some kind of awful thing produced by whisking cocoa powder into pan drippings. In reality, chocolate gravy is pretty much a warm, buttery chocolate pudding served over biscuits. And biscuits are pretty much shortcake.

Still, you’ll seldom meet anyone who feels so-so about chocolate gravy; a few folks love the dish, the rest of the world has absolutely no interest in trying it. I have even met people—heathens are people, too—who deny the existence of chocolate gravy.

Most of those who love it, in my experience, are white folks who grew up poor in places like Mountain Home, Arkansas or Poteau, Oklahoma. Sometimes, I see a man or woman with wide, sharp shoulders, high cheekbones and blue eyes set just a little too far back, and I think: “There’s a chocolate gravy person.”

Maybe it’s not the name that inspires such disdain, but rather some vestigal shame that they carry as descendants of folk for whom chocolate gravy was a special treat. Maybe they feel that eating it is just one step too many back towards Hooverville.

John Egerton, author of Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, described chocolate gravy as “a breakfast treat of long standing in the Arkansas Ozarks. A 1976 recipe collection of the Methodist Churchwomen of Conway Arkansas resurrected this remarkable dish, the origin of which is lost to history.”

The origin of Rosa Estep, maternal grandmother to Shreveport-based artist, photographer and filmmaker Kathryn Usher, is similarly unclear. Estep spent the majority of her life in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but her story began in the Ozarks where, family lore has it, her family once lived in a cave for some time.

“This is a photograph of my mom’s mom — Rosa Estep. She taught my mom how to make chocolate gravy. My mom’s hands are at the top. My daughter’s are bottom left. Mine are bottom right.”

-Kathryn Usher

“I think she was actually from northwestern Arkansas, the area that includes Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri,” Usher said. “Her little face reminded me of when you peel an apple and it dries up. She had really, really long, grey hair that she would pin up, not with bobby pins but with hair pins.”

Rosa Estep’s recipe for chocolate gravy was passed down to Usher’s mother, Kitti Usher, a Tulsa cocktail waitress who dropped out of school in the ninth grade to help support her 11 brothers and sisters. Kathryn describes Kitti as “a modern mom” who drank Pepsi, drove too fast, and would rather be just about anywhere than behind a stove.

“She was able to make a pretty decent living as a cocktail waitress, thanks to her beautiful cleavage,” Kathryn said. “My dad, who was a pro wrestler, would take mom to the ice cream parlor, and he would send her in alone because she could get more ice cream and hot fudge if she went in by herself. She was a very beautiful woman.”

Kitti Usher and her pro wrestler husband ring in the New Year—possibly in 1969—in this photo courtesy of Kathryn Usher.

Kitti would make chocolate gravy “maybe once a month, and always in the wintertime,” Kathryn said.

Kathryn is currently working on a memoir. When asked what it was like being raised by a cocktail waitress and a professional wrestler, her response could also describe a mom facing a nearly-empty cupboard with a house full of children to feed and only a little butter, cornstarch and cocoa powder from which to fashion some kind of treat.

“Parents just do the best that they can with what they have,” she said.

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Rosa Estep’s Chocolate Gravy

* 2/3 cup sugar
* 1/2 cup Hershey Special Dark Cocoa
* 2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
* pinch of salt
* 4 tablespoons butter, melted
* 2 cups milk
* preferred brand of canned biscuits, prepared per instructions

1. In a saucepan combine sugar, cocoa, cornstarch, and salt.

2. Stir in milk and butter. Continue stirring while cooking over medium high heat, until mixture is thickened like a gravy. This will take 8 minutes or so.

3. Pour in bowl

4. Add more butter if desired

5. Crumble biscuits over the gravy and eat while hot

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2 thoughts on “Family Recipe Project: Rosa Estep’s Chocolate Gravy

  1. The French have pain au chocolat, and we have chocolate gravy and biscuits. A considerable number of French Huguenots fleeing France settled in South Carolina, and that was one area from which subsequent waves of settlers headed west, with many settling in North Louisiana, Arkansas, and dispersing from there. It’s not too much of a leap from pain au chocolat to chocolat gravy, is it?

    1. Not too much of a leap at all, Sylvia. That is a great point that you make, and one that I had not considered.

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