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Deep in the Heart of Texas, We Bread Steak

Yee-haw! Chicken-fried steak and gravy.
Yee-haw! Chicken-fried steak and gravy. (James M. Thresher - For The Washington Post)

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By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

An occasional series in which staff members share a recipe that we turn to time and again:

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I've always told people that chicken-fried steak, one of the iconic dishes of Texas, was the first thing I learned how to make, at age 8 or 9, even though that's not entirely true. Mashed potatoes and whipped cream came slightly earlier; I had a thing for my mother's stand mixer. But those were mere accompaniments: a side dish, a garnish.

Anyone who has ever eaten CFS knows that it's nothing if not a whole meal: a crisp, tender-but-chewy mess of meat drowning in rich, peppery cream gravy. When those mashed potatoes I had mastered took their place on the plate, too, then you'd be more than set. Save the diet food for another day, or another state.

My teacher was my stepfather, Vernon Lee Jones, from the little West Texas town of Miles, about 20 minutes from the relative metropolis of San Angelo, where we lived. Tall and lean, Vern's a man of few words (think of Clint Eastwood's character in "The Bridges of Madison County"), and in my memory we conducted this lesson largely in silence. But what is there to say, really, that can't be shown? Pound a piece of round steak with a spiked mallet, dredge it in seasoned flour, get some oil real hot in a cast-iron skillet, pan-fry the steak on both sides until golden brown. Pour out most of the oil, add flour and pepper and milk or cream, whisk, scrape, let thicken, serve.

Not until I got to Austin for college did I realize there were other ways to make CFS. In the 1980s, the dish was having a moment in such restaurants as the famous comfort-food palace Threadgill's and the retro-hip Good Eats Cafe. At those places, the breading was flakier and more distinct than Vern's, probably because the cooks were dipping the steaks in egg before flouring them. Not bad, just different.

At Good Eats, in fact, one of the most popular dishes was chicken-fried chicken, made with boneless breasts rather than steak. Think about that name: It wasn't just fried chicken, it was chicken that was fried like chicken-fried steak, which was in turn fried . . . like chicken. Perhaps only a Texan could appreciate the distinction.

I haven't lived in Texas for 20 years now, so my experiences with chicken-fried steak have been few and far between and largely of my own making. That is, until the Smithsonian decided to feature Texas (along with Bhutan and NASA) at this year's Folklife Festival, which starts today. Among the recipes in the arsenal of things they're planning to demonstrate on the Mall is good old CFS.

This recipe came with an official-sounding story of origin, one that ran somewhat counter to what I had come to believe: that chicken-fried steak must be related to schnitzel, brought by all the Germans who immigrated to the Texas Hill Country. The story tells of Jimmy Don Perkins, a short-order cook at a cafe in Lamesa (even farther west than San Angelo), who on one fateful day in 1911 wrongly assumed that a waitress's ticket for two orders ("chicken, fried steak") was for only one. He had never heard of it, but figured the only way to make it was to cook the steak like fried chicken. So that's what he did.

The venerable Texas food authority Robb Walsh, in what may be the definitive treatise on CFS in a 2007 article for the Houston Press, broke down the dish into three distinct versions, theorizing that each may have a separate heritage. The East Texas one, dipped in egg and then flour, is probably connected to Southern fried chicken. The central Texas version, sometimes using bread crumbs in the mixture, probably comes from those German immigrants. And the eggless West Texas version I learned to make is probably more closely related to what the cowboys called pan-fried steak.

But there are exceptions to everything. The citified versions I tasted in Austin didn't use bread crumbs. Neither does the Smithsonian recipe, provided by Tom Nall of Burnet, also in central Texas. What's more, Nall uses Bisquick for a final coat.

That raised my purist's hackles, but when I tested his recipe, I loved it. The breading was extra flaky, no doubt from the baking soda in the Bisquick, and the gravy was perfectly spiced thanks to a few dashes of Tabasco and a pinch of sugar. It took me back to Texas: if not quite all the way to my childhood home in San Angelo, at least to Threadgill's in Austin.

I made it last week for a friend. He was enthusiastic about the steak and the breading but less so about the characteristically thick gravy. "It's so heavy and peppery," he said, "and it fights with the beef. Can you rework the recipe to make it thinner, maybe a little lighter?"

He's Canadian, so I should have cut him some slack. Instead, I told him yes, I most certainly can make the gravy thinner or lighter, but I won't. Not without the approval of Vernon Lee Jones of Miles, Texas, and I already know what he would say. Or what he wouldn't.


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