Chicken-fried steak is a dish in which a cut of beef, usually thin and selected from the round, is breaded and fried. (Occasionally, some restaurants have also cooked a cut of pork.) The method of preparation is similar to that of fried chicken, which explains the name. The Texas staple is most often served with mashed potatoes and covered with cream gravy.
The origin of chicken-fried steak—also known as country-fried steak or pan-fried steak—is debatable. According to foodtimeline.org, an independent research project created in 1999, an early printed American recipe for chicken-fried steak appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1924. Subsequent recipes appeared in such diverse publications as the Winnipeg Free Press in 1936 and the Household Searchlight Recipe Book of Topeka, Kansas, in 1949. The dish, however, was around long before that. Other food historians have stated that recipes for batter-fried steaks appeared in Southern cookbooks as far back as the early 1800s.
Prior to modern food safety practices and methods of food storage, the fine art of “making tough cuts of meat palatable” was a necessity; breading and frying often did the trick. Some food historians assert that chicken-fried steak is a descendant of Wiener schnitzel, a similar dish traditionally made with veal rather than beef that was brought to America by German immigrants who would eventually take it to Texas. Another theory claims that Jimmy Don Perkins, a short-order cook in a cafe in Lamesa, Texas, invented the dish by accident in 1911. According to the legend, Jimmy Don mistook two separate orders, one for chicken and one for fried steak, for one strange request and chicken-fried steak was born. In Texas, Pig Stand restaurants (the first opened in Dallas in 1921) took credit for the creation of the chicken-fried steak sandwich. In 2008 the last remaining Pig Stand (located in San Antonio on Broadway) of the once extensive cafe chain still served the sandwich.
According to Robb Walsh, former food editor of the Austin Chronicle and winner of the James Beard Journalism Award for Magazine Feature Writing, there are three distinct versions of chicken-fried steak. The East Texas version is dipped in egg and then flour, similar to the way Southern fried chicken is prepared. Central Texas’s version is made with bread crumbs rather than flour, much like Weiner schnitzel. There is also a West Texas version that is made without dipping the meat in egg; this is related to what cowboys called pan-fried steak.
While there are many recipes for chicken-fried steak, most connoisseurs maintain that preparing the true dish has become a lost art. While the recipe started out as a necessity for making use of meat of questionable quality, it developed into a Texas delicacy—“the perfect marriage of meat, batter, and grease.” The dish’s popularity has brought it full circle into the modern age of fast food in which shorter cook times and larger servings have taken precedence over taste. In the interest of saving time and money, restaurants stumbled onto the same revelation old-timers discovered years ago: with enough batter and grease, you can serve up meats of lesser quality.
The correct preparation of Texas chicken-fried steak takes time. The meat is pounded thin or run through a tenderizer, then dipped in milk before being placed in a bag of salt, pepper, and flour. The meat is then fried until golden brown in a small amount of shortening (preferably in a cast-iron skillet). The leftover grease and “drippings” that remain in the skillet are used to make gravy. Most recipes for chicken-fried steak are simple and similar, but there is as much art to getting it right as there is science. According to Walsh in his The Texas Cowboy Cookbook, the three most common mistakes are “under-seasoning the batter, getting overzealous with a tenderizing mallet, and overheating the oil.”
Like its origin and methods of preparation, there is much debate about where to find the best chicken-fried steak in Texas. An online search for “best Chicken-Fried Steak in Texas” will return countless forums and blogs in which foodies from all over the Lone Star State share their opinions. In early 2011 the city of Lamesa, Texas, made preparations to hold its inaugural “Lamesa Original Chicken-Fried Festival” in honor of the one-hundredth anniversary of the chicken-fried’s invention there. The event, to be held annually the last weekend of April, was set to host a chicken-fried steak cook-off along with other activities designed to herald the fried dish.