How to make gravy: a Paul Kelly-inspired institution

If Paul Kelly is a banquet, How to Make Gravy is the hero dish.

The five-minute song has become an integral part to any Christmas dinner or celebration, and a classic Australian banger any other time of the year.

The song about a prisoner, Joe, writing to his mate, Dan, on the outside about his family Christmas celebrations evokes emotions from almost any Aussie, particularly in the last five years, despite being written in 1996.

And that might be heightened even more this year if you're an Aussie still stranded overseas right now.

Believe it or not, it was two years back that I was at Sydney's Domain surrounded by thousands of people, arm in arm, singing this song with the great Paul Kelly on his How To Make Gravy Tour.

Paul Kelly after "that" concert in the DOmain in 2019. Photo: @PaulKelly via Instagram

Paul Kelly after "that" concert in the DOmain in 2019. Photo: @PaulKelly via Instagram

That night, like every other, the song needed no introduction. He launched straight into it with the iconic riff. All of a sudden the feeling in the open space changed completely. To patriotism, heartfelt, slightly drunk, emotion.

"Hello Dan, it's Joe here. I hope you're feeling well."

When the song begins it sounds like a regular family Christmas, people travelling to get together and a roast dinner despite it being scorching hot outside. We hear about Joe's kids and his partner Rita who are all waiting at home and the friends and family who will join for them for the annual ritual.

"I guess the brothers are driving down from Queensland; and Stella's driving in from the Coast."

When we get to the chorus, another layer is added. Joe talks about his absence, especially when it comes to the gravy making at the special time of year. He apologises for missing Christmas.

"Hope you kiss my kids on Christmas day, please don't let 'em cry for me."

We never actually find out why Joe is in prison and despite majority of Australians not having experienced prison (99.98 per cent have no according to the last census data), the song seems to resonate deeply.

"Who's going to make the gravy? I bet it don't taste the same. Just add flour, salt, a little red wine, don't forget a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang."

The song also provides us with a gravy recipe, which asks the age old question, do you really add tomato sauce?

"Tell her that I'm sorry, yeah I love her badly. Tell 'em all I'm sorry. And kiss the sleeping children for me."

The end of the song is a sad verse about how much he loves his partner Rita and their children, and how sorry he is for ending up in prison.

Joe has become the great Aussie battler. We don't know what he did to get in there (nor does Kelly ever say), but there's no judgement. It's just devastating that he's missing Christmas with his kids.

So tell me, how does a song like this end up being Australia's most iconic Christmas song?

All I know is, my Spotify will be blaring How to Make Gravy on December 21 and again on Christmas Day..