Hello, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes. Today we continue our month long dive into Diners, in what I’m calling “Diner Month”, because sometimes, you just gotta keep it simple, stupid. Last week, I discussed how encountering the involved and mysterious history of the Home fry kept me from bringing in the hashbrowns. This week, I just didn’t make them. Why? Because I always order Home fries, so I just don’t give a shit about hashbrowns. Also, the recipe I DID make is definitely not for the faint of heart, or those with an easily clogged heart. Today, we’re tackling Chicken Fried Steak.
Which came first, the Chicken or the Steak?
First, let me win, again, an argument I had about seven years ago:
Chicken fried Steak is made out of STEAK.
Preferably a steak shaped like a state.
Yeah, that’s an actual argument I had with a roommate once. He was insistent that Chicken Fried Steak was Chicken. Luckily, this was after the rise of our benevolent tech god Google, so I was able to shortly win the argument, but found, in proving so, that this was not an isolated squabble. I blame non-Southern waiters, because that’s honestly the only way I can conceive of it. Someone has been pausing in a stupid way, causing people to hear “Chicken, Fried Steak”, instead of “Chicken-Fried Steak”, meaning, ‘Steak, fried like you would chicken.” And yes, that’s the real easy etymology: someone thought of dipping steak in egg wash, coating in flour, and frying, like making fried chicken.
Except of course they didn’t, because nothing is that easy.
More than One Way to Skin a Steak
First, some history: No one’s 100% sure where exactly chicken fried steak comes from. People have noted European dishes like Wiener Schnitzel (a breaded and fried Veal cutlet) and Milanese chops (meat chops, the meat pounded thin, breaded, and fried) both existed, and were likely remembered by immigrants coming to America. But, as you hopefully noticed, neither of those used actual beef, for some semantic positions of whether or not veal is beef.
That distinction was also, for decades, considered the answer: some German or Austrian chap came over, and one day made his Schnitzel with older cows, and thus the steak was born. He did it in Texas, because Texas claimed dominion over CFS, as I will write “Chicken Fried Steak” for a while, in order to seem hip and trendy, and also because the word “steak” was starting to lose meaning.
What is the meaning of steak? Does meat have meaning?
That story is, tragically, utterly unprovable, and at least somewhat wrong. Because other enterprising food researchers have found that the first menu appearances for CFS show up in Colorado Springs in 1914. Then it spreads to Kansas. And the recipe isn’t derived from Wiener Schnitzel at all. Instead, it springs from that most perfect well-spring of human invention: Laziness!
See, in the later 1800’s, America had a good thing going: all the fucking land in the world, and a metric shit-ton of cows to feed on it. Steak, previously a food mostly consumed by the wealthy elites of Europe, was of sufficient quantity that it could be a BREAKFAST FOOD. (Note: Late 1800’s to early 1900’s America’s massive meat market was actually the REASON a lot of American foods got made: Corned Beef was from Irish people used to boiling ham with cabbage going “Jaysus, weel ya look at ‘ow cheep beef is hair? Ther ‘AS ta be a whey ta use et!” Spaghetti and Meatballs came about because Italian immigrants said “Dere’sa so much meata here, we can put da balls INA DA SAUCE! Truly, we’va reachedt a bellisimo new world!” Both groups were later beaten by the “real Americans” for talking weird, stealing their jobs, and not eating beef stroganoff like good, racially pure people.)
*German National Anthem begins*
Anywho, people were “broiling” (read: grilling) steak for breakfast, but, well, getting good coals takes way too damn long. So, a Doctor named A.W. Chase, full name Alvin Wood Chase, a name so stereotypically American I have to believe he was a snake-oil salesman and a con-man. However, he wrote a series of books, one of which was a Collection of 800 “recipes”, by which he meant “guides on how to not suck at everything.” “Here’s how you make soap, you filthy animal”, “Here’s when to plant beans so you don’t starve”, “Is your horse looking weirdly fat? Stab it in the side!” (NOTE: While an actual remedy to save horses from colic, do not attempt if you are not trained in horse-stabbing. I know too many women who love horses to ever advocate violence against horses, lest they enact horse violence upon me.)
So the “Definitely a Real Doctor, stop asking” said, “Hey, if you’re in too much of a hurry to grill your steaks, just put a cast iron pan on the coals, throw in some butter, and fry the steaks!” He then says “But, that might suck, so take some steps to make it not suck, idiot. Pound it up, season it, then roll it in bread crumbs before frying. That shit is delicious, unlike MARTHA’S trash fried steak.”
"Say that to my face and not online. See what happens, little bitch."
That guide was published in 1893, 20 years before CFS appeared on menus. So why does Texas think it owns Chicken Fried Steak, he asked, abandoning his acronym mid-paragraph? Well, because America is bipolar. IN the 1950’s and 60’s, there was a growing tide of Euro-centric ‘refinement’ in restaurants and cooking in the country, at least partly created by the growing realities of trans-Atlantic travel post-World War 2. Julia Child’s Joy of French Cooking came out, and the New York Times started focusing on rating fine dining restaurants rather than sharing home recipes in its food section.
Texas responded, in the most Texan way imaginable: a Sports Illustrated writer made a best-selling novel about a Texan football player named “Billy Clyde Puckett” (see what I mean about on-the-nose names?) prepping for a Super Bowl in New York, who, among his other shenanigans, spends several lines praising chicken fried steak, particularly the kind made in his home town café. He specifically calls out a not-so-perfect batch his love interest makes him as being ‘better than what we pay $40 to have a surly Frenchman throw at us’.
"Tayk your swill, American, and be 'appy I do not taunt you a sehcound time."
This started a ‘thing’, with many Texan writers extolling the virtues of Chicken Fried Steak, other writers saying “Man, Chicken Fried steak is alright, but Texas sure does love that shit.” And some people talking about how Jimmy Carter’s election in 76 has opened the door for Chicken Fried Steak across the nation. Which is almost racist, since Carter is from GEORGIA. I mean, you can drive from El Paso to San Diego in the same amount of time as Dallas to Atlanta! Georgia is as close to Texas as CALIFORNIA.
But, yeah, by the end of the 70’s, Chicken Fried Steak was a “Texan thing”. Except it never was, it’s always been an everywhere thing, and now I’m going to make it, rather than keep measuring distances on Google maps to get comparisons (You can get pretty deep into Utah with the same amount of distance.)
Step 1: Ignore the controversy.
Apparently, in Texas, there are three “schools” of chicken Fried steak. Some use an egg wash and flour, some use breadcrumbs, and some just use a dusting of flour. I will engage in some slight prejudice here, and call the last group idiots. Sure, I get it, it’s faster and more “steak”. But you sure as shit don’t fry your chicken like that, asshole, so don’t tell me this is CHICKEN FRIED STEAK if you don’t fry it like chicken.
I used a flour-egg-flour breading. And I ALSO performed an experiment, because, honestly, this how I get my kicks: drawing lines on maps and fucking around with food. See, my family had 2 meat tenderizing devices: one was the ever-loved mallet of pounding, and the other was essentially an afro pick made of metal.
Weren't these the weapons of a Mortal Kombat character? Or was that Killer Instinct?
I decided to see if there was a noticeable difference in which method I used, so I took 2 top round steaks, and pounded them into six cube steaks. (Seriously, you get THREE steaks per steak out of this. No wonder it was a frugal meal choice!). Then I tenderized them. Both methods had worries: the Afro Pick of Doom device’s holes kept sealing when I did the other side. The spiked mallet head of Destruction made me worry I was shredding the meat texture. Did they change anything? A little. Basically, the spiked mallet cuts were thinner, because, you know, I was pounding them more with a mallet. So the stabbed steaks were thicker. Other than that, they were pretty much the same.
Meats thoroughly stabbed or slammed, it was time to bread them. The flour was seasoned, because, again, THAT’S HOW YOU FRY CHICKEN. I used salt, pepper, a touch of cayenne, and a hint of garlic powder. Into the flour, into the egg wash, into the flour. Meanwhile, I’ve had about an inch of oil heating up all this time. America’s test kitchen said I’d want it at 355 degrees before I dropped in my steaks. I undershot that a little, and let me be the first to say: Don’t.
There's nothing going particularly wrong in this picture, I just felt the yin yang of steak was cool.
See, too cold oil is the REASON some fried foods come out soggy and greasy. Hot oil boils water quickly, and boiling water is the shield that keeps oil from seeping in. Lower the heat, you raise the amount of oil that soaks in. While my steaks weren’t a soggy, greasy mess, they weren’t as crisp as I would have liked them.
The process was a little nerve-wracking. As I’ve said plenty of times, I don’t like deep-frying, after a couple oil burns and close calls. And my steaks were large enough I could only really fry 1 at a time. Well, for a while I could fry the first side, and add another steak while flipping the first, but things got...complicated.
See, Chicken Fried Steak is almost always accompanied by gravy. Country Gravy, typically. Now, in a diner, this is pretty easy to do: the steak itself is in a deep fryer, so no trouble there. The gravy was probably made four hours ago, and is just sitting warm in a tub on the back of the griddle. Here, that meant I had to start a gravy. Also, my father wanted mashed potatoes with dinner, since that’s how a dinner portion of CFS is served, so THAT took a burner, and he wanted cooked green beans. So, for a while, I was cooking on 3 burners, and the front one was a hissing pot of oil.
Luckily, country gravy is really easy: You just cook some sausage (really any breakfast meat will do, but around here, we prefer sausage), throw some flour in the pan to form a roux with the sausage fat, and then add about a quart of milk. Simmer it down to the consistency you like, season with salt and pepper, and boom, country gravy.
It's like the world's weirdest chowder!
Now, typically in more civilized places, the gravy on your chicken fried steak doesn’t actually keep the sausage in it: you take it out after cooking, before adding the flour. But I didn’t have time.
How it all Panned Out
You got so far into the note before a pun, Title Jon. I was almost proud of you. Anyway, in the end, how was the meal? To me, it was a moderate disappointment. See, I’ve had a TON of chicken fried steak. It’s my go-to meal for breakfast at a place I haven’t eaten before. And mine was..fine. It was unremarkable. The crust could have been a little crisper, I could have used a little more gravy with a little less sausage…Like, if a restaurant handed me this, I don’t know that I would order it there again.
Everyone else said it was “Good”, “Pretty good” and “fine”, though my brother did call me a savage for not removing the sausage from the gravy. Overall, I don’t think it was really worth it. But maybe that was just the timing window. Like, if I had cooked the steaks earlier and let them sit in a warm oven so I had time to handle the gravy properly. If I had held out for those last 4 minutes to let the oil get to temp. For a first attempt, it was more than passable. For a man with a taste for the dish, it was a let-down.
Have I made less good-looking food? Yes. But not recently.
What? I don’t win them all. Sometimes, I just fuck up, and it’s not a great meal. Why do you think we named this “Kitchen CATASTROPHES?” And that’s fine. Maybe next time I make it better, or I say “You know what? I’m fine saying I don’t make chicken fried steak at home.” The point of our catastrophes isn’t that you defend the dish as being actually a great, or even good, dish. It’s that you don’t let a single failure prevent you from trying something else in the future.
THURSDAY: THE CULINARY COMPENDIUM RETURNS, WITH DINER LINGO. SO GET YOUR ADAM AND EVE ON A RAFT AND BURN ‘EM!
MONDAY: I DON’T KNOW YET. I THINK MAYBE A TUNA MELT? THAT’S DINER FOOD. I WAS GOING TO DO HOLLANDAISE, BUT I’M KINDA OVER-PLAYING THE “DINER = BREAKFAST” ANGLE.
Chicken Fried Steak
2 top round steaks, roughly 1 pound each.
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp cayenne
1/2 cup milk
3+ cups of vegetable oil.
1. Prepare the steaks by pounding them out to somewhere under 1/4" thickness., and cutting them to your preferred steak length and width. I got 3 serviceable steaks per top round. Tenderize using the method of your choosing. Pour the oil into a large skillet, and heat over high heat until roughly 350 degrees.
2. Mix the flour, pepper, salt, garlic powder and cayenne in a tub. In another tub, whisk the eggs and milk. One at a time, take your tenderized steaks, and cover them in the flour, shake them off, then cover in the egg mixture, letting the excess drip off, before covering once again in flour.
3. Place 1-2 breaded steaks in the oil at a time, frying about 5 minutes, turning once. Serve warm, with country gravy.
1 lb breakfast sausage
1/4 cup flour
1 quart milk
1. Cook the sausage over medium high heat. For a smoother gravy, remove sausage from teh pan, or leave in for a more rustic version. Add the flour, and stir to mix with the sausage fat, cooking roughly 2-3 minutes. Add the milk, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring frequently, until gravy has thickened to your liking.