A steaming chicken-fried steak comes sliding down the stainless-steel bartop atOuisie's Table
and comes to rest below my nose. The golden-brown, Southern-fried crust is so perfect that the cream gravy is served on the side. I nibble on the mashed potatoes, the mustard greens and the custardy corn pudding. The undulating curves of battered steak are endlessly alluring, but the free-form fried meat is still too hot to eat. I finger the gravy boat. I want to pour the gravy at just the right instant: Wait too long and the meat is not hot enough anymore, pour too early and you either burn your mouth or sit in frustration while that awesome crust goes soggy.
While I wait for that moment to arrive, I fume about something I read in the paper. "Only a dupe believes in such a thing as the best chicken-fried steak in Texas," read the subhead of an article written by my fellow food writer, George Alexander ("Deep-Fried Greenhorn," Houston Press, November 30, 2000). George was just poking fun at our Texas food traditions, but I was not amused.
George is a fine fellow -- a world traveler of impeccable taste, an expert on caviars, teas and wild mushrooms, and a writer of great distinction. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don't, and that's fine. This particular piece, however, was insulting to me and everything I hold sacred.
"The phrase 'chicken-fried steak' is, itself, striking and memorable in a Hee Haw kind of way," George opines. But "there is no such thing as a great chicken-fried steak." The tough round steak should be braised, not fried like the tender veal used in Wiener schnitzel, and no good cook would ever use béchamel on beef, he says. "Finally, to make this dish truly hilarious, the contemporary Texan food humorist serves it with a side of mashed potatoes so that there is little contrast in color, flavor and texture between the sauce and side dish, and a minimal contrast with the battered, fried beef," says George. He also questions the historical pretensions of the dish, since the earliest mention of it in print dates back to only 1952.
George, I understand how you could have made this mistake. There are a lot of bad chicken-fried steaks out there, just as there are lots of bad Wiener schnitzels, bad béchamels and bad caviars. But ignorance is no excuse. You shot yourself in the foot on this one, George. And your foot was in your mouth at the time.
I will address each of your contentions in a minute. But first, I need to pour some gravy. I like to start modestly with a couple of tablespoons over a quarter of the battered steak and then quickly cut off a big chunk. That way the batter is still crunchy and each bit is instantly swaddled in the salty warmth of cream gravy and savory meat juice. I close my eyes and savor the moment. Ouisie's Table serves a world-class chicken-fried steak -- without a doubt, one of the best in Texas.
Not that I am an authority. I have been eating chicken-fried steak (or CFS, as it is known in the trade) for only 30 years, and writing about it for ten. I hope someday to become a full-fledged expert, like Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who can describe the nuances of every CFS in every small-town cafe within a 100-mile radius of the Fort Worth stockyards. Kennedy learned from a master, the late Jerry Flemmons, also a columnist at the Star-Telegram.
"As splendid and noble as barbecue and Tex-Mex are, both pale before that Great God Beef dish, chicken-fried steak," wrote Flemmons. "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 Texans."
Flemmons and his buddy Dan Jenkins hung out at an old Fort Worth roadhouse called Massey's, which is famous for its CFS and ice-cold beer served in frozen cannonball-sized schooners. Jenkins wrote a comic riff about chicken-fried steak in his novel, Baja Oklahoma. Only after years of studying these masters of CFS literature did I dare to try writing about the "Great God Beef dish" myself.
There is a chicken-fried steak recipe in A Cowboy in the Kitchen, the cookbook I co-authored with Fort Worth chef Grady Spears. (Check out the sexy close-up of a CFS dripping with cream gravy on the cover.) Which, of course, brings up the subject of my conflict of interest here. I will admit that the CFS is buttering my bread, and it would not be in my financial interest to bad-mouth it.
So don't take my word for it, George. Take your basic premise, that there is no such thing as a great chicken-fried steak, over to Ouisie's Table. (Call first -- they serve CFS only on Tuesdays or as a daily special.) Here's how to eat it: First you cut off a nice big chunk of steaming meat with plenty of batter, then put some potatoes on top with your knife, and then some mustard greens (properly doused with pepper sauce). Now lower the whole forkful directly into the gravy bowl for a drenching.
Not enough contrast? What I get is a montage of texture and flavor, the vinegary pepper sauce on the bitter mustard-flavored greens burning through the mashed potato and creamy gravy and mixing boldly with the meat juices. This perfect bite is properly washed down with a swallow of cold beer. (Go ahead and get the Pilsner Urquel if Shiner Bock isn't good enough for you.) If you still can't tell the meat from the potatoes after a bite like this, then maybe its time to take your palate in for a checkup.
The meat is a little tough, you complain. Duh, George. What did you expect? Tough beef has been the main indigenous ingredient in Texas regional cooking for quite some time now. Which is why we also invented the hamburger, chili con carne and barbecued brisket here. That's also why we tenderize the steaks before we batter and fry them.
But just for the sake of argument, let's consider your contention. "Frying, especially batter-frying in a pan, is for tender meats. Think Wiener schnitzel," you say. In James Beard's American Cookery, the recipe for Wiener schnitzel calls for a veal cutlet. "In our terminology, the cutlet is cut from the leg and has the round bone still in," says Beard. This one-half to one-inch-thick round steak is then pounded with a meat mallet to the thickness of a quarter-inch or even thinner and then breaded and fried in deep fat. Sound familiar?
After you beat it with a hammer for a while, what's the difference between veal and beef round? Surely tenderness is not the issue. Veal tastes milder because it comes from milk-fed calves. But there wasn't any milk-fed veal available in Texas years ago. So they made the same dish with a similar cut of beef. Chicken-fried steak is essentially a Texas variation on the breaded veal cutlet, an American dish that James Beard tells us was patterned after Austrian Wiener schnitzel and Italian veal Milanese and has been popular in the United States for 150 years.
Which brings us to the topic of history. "Most Texans probably first heard about the dish when they went to see the 1971 movie The Last Picture Show," says George. Wait a minute, let me get this straight. He thinks Bubba started eating chicken-fried steak because of an arty black-and-white film by Peter Bogdanovich? Now that's what I call "truly hilarious"!
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According to the Lone Star Book of Records, the CFS was invented in 1911 by Jimmy Don Perkins, a cook in a small cafe in Lamesa, Texas, who misunderstood a customer's order and battered a thin steak and deep-fried it in hot oil. Unfortunately this oft-reported food fact is a complete fable. Nobody is really sure when the CFS was invented, but it was long before 1952. In the Best Read Guide to San Antonio, Carol B. Sowa reports that the Pig Stand Drive-in locations in San Antonio started serving chicken-fried steak sandwiches when they opened in the 1940s. Gourmet columnists Jane and Michael Stern speculate in Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A. that the chicken-fried steak was a Depression-era invention of Hill Country German-Texans. My own guess is that the dish existed as beefsteak Wiener schnitzel long before the catchy Southern name was coined.
Finally we come to the cream gravy problem. "It is also known to all professional cooks that you would never, ever use béchamel sauce on beef," says George. In speaking for all professional cooks, George truly puts his foot in his mouth. Elouise Cooper and Robert Del Grande, two of Houston's best chefs, serve chicken-fried steaks with cream gravy. So what is George trying to tell us? That Cooper and Del Grande aren't professional cooks?
At Del Grande's Rio Ranch [9999 Westheimer, (713)952-5000] the chicken-fried is a sirloin dipped in buttermilk batter and served with cream gravy. Rio Ranch helped invent the upscale cowboy cuisine that has taken the common chicken-fried to new heights in Texas. Over the last ten years, chicken-fried venison steaks, chicken-fried rib eyes and chicken-fried tuna steaks (all in cream gravy) have been featured in high-class restaurants across the state. No doubt George will discover these innovations someday soon and report back to us breathlessly about them.
We can forgive George his miscues; he has just moved back to Texas after a long absence. But the real problem here isn't the lack of local knowledge, it's the haughty attitude. Telling Houstonians that there is no such thing as a great chicken-fried steak is like telling Philadelphians that there is no such thing as a great cheese steak, or New Yorkers that there is no such thing as a great pizza. It's not just a snobby opinion, it's a civic slur.