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"Palo Pinto County's main industries are cream gravy and methamphetamines," says Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy, who joined us at Mary's for lunch. "This used to be the only place within 50 miles where a student at Tarleton State University could get a beer," Kennedy says. But then some other towns near the college went wet.
One of the Tarleton State students was the late Fort Worth Star-Telegram travel editor Jerry Flemmons, who wrote the first chicken-fried steak rankings in Fort Worth in 1976. Flemmons used to say that there were three major food groups in Texas barbecue, Tex-Mex and chicken-fried steak. But he was prejudiced in favor of the CFS.
"As splendid and noble as barbecue and Tex-Mex are, both pale before the Great God Beef dish, chicken-fried steak," Flemmons once wrote. "No single food better defines the Texas character; it has, in fact, become a kind of nutritive metaphor for the romanticized, prairie-hardened personality of Texas."
The panfried chicken-fried steak of West Texas was the "prairie-hardened" variety that Flemmons was talking about. Bud Kennedy comes from the same tradition. "My mom just dipped them in flour and panfried them," said Kennedy, who grew up in Fort Worth. And that's what most West Texans think of when you start talking about chicken-fried steak.
West Texans consider the heavily battered and deep-fried Southern style, with its undulations and flakes, to be indulgent, overwrought and sinfully rich. They don't care if we eat them over our way, but when East Texans start impugning the simple, flour-dipped West Texas version of chuck wagon fame, those are fighting words.
The view from Strawn is that there's something suspicious about East Texans ranking chicken-fried steaks to begin with. After all, CFS journalism has always been dominated by writers from Fort Worth.
The gravy-sodden chicken-fried steak was already out-of-date when Julia Child and JFK's White House chef made French food chic in the early 1960s. But it made a comeback in the 1970s. "I take full credit for reinventing the chicken-fried steak," Dan Jenkins told me on the phone from his home in Fort Worth.
Jenkins, who has enjoyed a long career as one of America's favorite sports writers, published a novel about pro football called Semi-Tough in 1972. In it, a former TCU football star named Billy Clyde Puckett is horrified to discover that he can't get a chicken-fried steak in New York City after being drafted by the Giants.
"Semi-Tough was a best-seller, and it reintroduced the chicken-fried steak," said Jenkins. "I was living in New York at the time, and none of my friends up there knew what it was." But back in Jenkins's hometown of Fort Worth, the book set off a chicken-fried frenzy.
Texas Monthly magazine was founded in 1973. In May 1974, the magazine published "The Best Little Old Chicken-Fried Steak in Texas," the first of the CFS rankings. Early statewide rankings always paid tribute to Massey's Restaurant on 8th Avenue in Fort Worth. The restaurant, which was immortalized in print by Dan Jenkins, was owned by Herb Massey. It appears under the pseudonym of Herb's Café in his books.
"The reason it was so good was that it was a little cube steak tenderized all to hell, served on toast with cream gravy over the top," Jenkins said. "We got the bright idea of putting it on biscuits instead of toast, and that tasted pretty good too."
After Herb Massey passed away, the restaurant was taken over by new management. Massey's stayed the same, but the chicken-fried steak moved uptown. Upscale cowboy restaurants like Reata took over from aging cafes as Fort Worth's favorite places for the dish.
I asked Jenkins what makes a great chicken-fried steak. "It has to have the living shit tenderized out of it," he said. "You should be able to cut it with a fork."
He doesn't have any problem with the newfangled chicken-fried steaks made with premium cuts of beef. "Twenty years ago, I used to eat at a place called Rudy's in Houston. Jackie Burke and all the golfers used to hang out there. Rudy used to make a CFS with chateaubriand," he said. "It was damn good."
The chicken-fried steak at the Frisco Shop on Burnet Road in Austin had a bland-tasting crust. The meat was over-tenderized. The mashed potatoes still held the shape of the ice cream scoop. "Soft and bland, that's the way this crowd likes it," joked my booth mate, Alan Lazarus, one of Austin's top chefs. When we walked in at dinnertime on Saturday night, he predicted we would be the youngest people in the restaurant, and he was right by a long shot.
We had joined the senior-citizen set for dinner at the Frisco Shop to sample the last of the Night Hawk's chicken-fried steaks, and to bid a sentimental goodbye. Walgreens has purchased the lot, and the 55-year-old Frisco Shop is scheduled for demolition sometime next year. It is the last location of the Night Hawk chain, once the most prestigious in Austin.
I told Lazarus I had eaten chicken-fried steak for lunch at R.O.'s Outpost in Spicewood, the place that won the Austin Chronicle's "Best Chicken-Fried Steak" award in 2003 and 2004. I asked him if he knew which restaurant had won in 2005 and 2006. "I don't think it's even a category any more," he said.