How a Food Becomes a Delicacy

No food might characterize Texas more than chicken-fried steak, the golden fried beef cutlet that usually comes smothered in creamy gravy. This month’s Texas Monthly describes it as one of  the state’s most iconic dishes, and even better, charts its route to culinary prominence:

According to legend, the chicken-fried steak was born a century ago as a mistake, when a cook at Ethel’s Home Cooking, in Lamesa, misread an order ticket for “chicken and fried steak.” The reality, of course, isn’t so tidy. Considerable evidence suggests that a version of the dish arrived in the cultural baggage of German immigrants who settled in Texas in the mid-1800’s. Some food historians trace its culinary heritage to Wiener schnitzel, a Viennese meal of breaded veal pan-fried to a light crisp in lard or clarified butter. 

Whatever route chicken-fried steak took from the Old World to the New, its journey got more interesting after it arrived in Texas. The dish was the ideal food for a westernizing people. Home cooks took a specimen of the lowliest and stringiest cuts of meat from the most bedraggled backyard cow, whacked it into tenderness, dredged it in spice-laden flour, and cooked it in leftover grease. It was scrappy, low-rent fare that reflected the struggle of settlers living on the edge of starvation and penury. And like all such humble, home-cooked dishes, it was almost infinitely variable. Every chicken-fried steak was different because every cook was different, every batch of firewood was different, and every cow was different. Even the cast-iron skillets, seasoned over decades, curated an archive of distinct flavors.

Now, of course, you can find a chicken-fried steak (or my preference, the curiously named chicken-fried chicken), in any Chili’s or Cracker Barrel. Has the industrialization perverted the history of an iconic delicacy? I’m inclined to think not. Cultural foods over time tend to get labeled “authentic” or “not.” That’s a subjective decision. But really, between the roadside home-cooking restaurant and your grocer’s freezer, there’s never been a more robust selection of chicken-fried items. That means a food has fully arrived. It also means the maximum number of people can enjoy it.