Deep-Fried Greenhorn

Texans love a practical joke. The practical joke, after all, is what distinguishes American humor from, say, British humor. Think of the difference between Mark Twain's The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Most Texans, it is safe to say, would find the Twain short story funnier.

The preferred butt of many practical jokes is, naturally, the newcomer, the greenhorn, the dude or the cherry, to use some favorite Texan locutions. "Run over to the far end of the airport," a gruff but fun-loving Texas airplane mechanic may say to a new kid in the hangar, "and git me a can of prop wash."

The classic, universally repeated snipe-hunt-style joke Texans like to play on newcomers, of course, is to send them chasing around the state in search of the "best dang chicken-fried steak in Texas." Any real Texan can engage a newcomer in a lengthy conversation about where one finds the best chicken-fried steak. A good artist will be able to pause significantly in mid-sentence, look off into the distance, then maybe run his fingers back through his hair and finally declare, "Well, the best chicken-fried steak used to be in this little place off of FM 1960 near the Houston city limits sign. The fella that ran it, well, he passed away, and nobody in the family wanted to take over the business. Guess it's just too much work makin' chicken-fried steak the old-fashioned way."

The newcomer to Houston is, of course, totally beguiled by all this. The phrase "chicken-fried steak" is, itself, striking and memorable, in a Hee Haw kind of way. Is the dish made from chicken or from steak? Then, the tone of semi-mystical reverie a good Texan joker uses in discussing the subject causes the newcomer to feel he is brushing up against something the lit-crit crowd likes to call authenticity.

"This is no overgrown, anomic suburban mall rat I'm talking to here," the victim thinks. "This is someone who has roots in this place, deep-down roots, ancestors who rode the old Salt Grass Trail and hoed rows of cotton in the hot sun and voted the straight Democratic ticket for yellow dogs and Lyndon Johnson."

There are two major leg-pulls going on here. First, "chicken-fried steak" is not a term that Charles Goodnight or Shanghai Pierce would have recognized. The first use of the term "chicken-fried steak" in print, according to Southern food expert Diana Rattray, was way, way back in 1952. That's close to a century after buckaroos stopped driving herds of longhorn cattle across the Red River, heading for the railhead in Abilene, Kansas. Certainly the famous 1953 third edition of The Joy of Cooking, by the mother-and-daughter team of Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, the standard American cookbook from 1931 until the '60s, makes no mention of anything called chicken-fried steak or even a battered-and-fried steak.

A less famous but fairly exhaustive cookbook titled The Wide, Wide World of Texas Cooking, by Morton G. Clark, published in 1970, also fails to mention chicken-fried steak by name. The Clark book does have a recipe for something called "fried round steak," which it suggests be served with "white gravy," making a concoction very much like chicken-fried steak as we know it today. Most Texans probably first heard about the dish when they went to see the 1971 movie that launched Cybill Shepherd's career, The Last Picture Show. In a brief scene, an actor who may have been Ben Johnson tells a sluttish-looking actress who may have been Cloris Leachman to "chicken-fry me a steak." Even though the movie was directed by a bowtie-wearing weenie from New York, Peter Bogdanovich, the whole film dripped with such achingly bleak high-plains realism that the viewer just knew that chicken-frying a steak, whatever the heck that meant, was an authentically, manfully Texan act.

The second leg-pull, of course, is that there is no such thing as a great chicken-fried steak. It begins with round steak, which is cut from that part of a southbound steer that is pointing north. A steer is a heavy animal, and the hindquarters have to be correspondingly strong, both in musculature and connective tissue, to do their part in keeping the critter upright. The tender parts of a steer are known to American butchers as the rib, short loin and sirloin sections. Anybody who knows anything about cooking also knows that the tougher cuts should never be fried; instead, they need to be stewed or braised to become tender enough to eat. Frying, especially batter-frying in a pan, is for tender meats. Think Wiener schnitzel. Nonetheless, having fried a notoriously tough piece of meat, the cook then douses it with a substance called white gravy or cream gravy. This is known to professional cooks, of course, as béchamel sauce, named after a great connoisseur and courtier to Louis XIV, Louis de Béchamel. It is also known to all professional cooks that you would never, ever use béchamel sauce on beef. Finally, to make the 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 the side dish, and a minimal contrast with the battered, fried beef.

Thus the greenhorn orders chicken-fried steaks and thoughtfully, if a bit laboriously, chews them until that certain moment of epiphany. It's at that moment that he becomes a naturalized Texan.

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George Alexander