Food & Drink

Country Ham and True Sawmill Gravy

Just add warm buttermilk biscuits

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

The thing about country ham: you don’t have to cook it much if you don’t want to. The highest-cured Southern country hams (sometimes aged as long as eighteen months) can be thinly sliced and eaten raw, like prosciutto. Even the inexpensive packaged slices of pre-cut country ham you can find in most grocery stores just need a few minutes in a hot skillet to develop a golden brown crust. What’s left behind in that pan is where the cooking really begins. Use the rich, flavorful ham drippings as a base for a variety of gravies.

The finely milled flour that thickens pasty-white “sawmill” sausage gravy today wasn’t always an everyday ingredient for many Southerners. Certainly not the mountain men who worked logging camps in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Back then cornmeal did the job. This recipe adheres to that tradition, creating a thicker gravy that’s more akin to grits. In fact, the lumbermen often joked that there was sawdust in their gravy, but they didn’t complain about the flavor.


    • 1 tablespoon bacon grease or unsalted butter

    • 4 cooked thick-cut country ham slices

    • 3 tablespoons course-ground yellow cornmeal

    • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

    • 2 cups whole milk

    • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

    • Dash of hot pepper sauce


  1. Melt the bacon grease in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Fry the ham slices for 3 or 4 minutes per side depending on their thickness. Remove the ham slices from the pan and wrap them in foil to keep warm.

  2. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the rendered fat in the skillet; discard the rest. Add the cornmeal and salt and cook, stirring regularly, until the cornmeal begins to brown, 2 to 3 minutes.

  3. Slowly whisk in the milk, breaking up any lumps and scarping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes, until the gravy has thickened (it will thicken further upon standing). Season with pepper and the hot sauce. Serve with ham slices and warm biscuits.

Recipe from The Southerner’s Cookbook