You know what I like? Steak. You know what else? Fried chicken. I’d imagine I’m not alone in announcing my affinity for each. Additionally, it should come as no surprise that a dish combining both, chicken fried steak, would be a winner. So, I thought I’d give you a rundown and brief history of chicken fried steak.
I have to admit, growing up, I steered clear of chicken fried steak whenever I saw it on the menu. While I was brought up in a neighboring northern suburb of Chicago, and chicken fried steak was not regularly on many menus, occasionally, whether visiting relatives in Cincinnati, or road tripping for a baseball or basketball tournament, I’d encounter the dish. Nevertheless, as I mentioned, I would never order it. Some might say that has something to do with the fact I had never seen my parents order it, so I was never in a position to taste it. My theory? I never really knew what it was, and I wasn’t really brave enough as a kid to ask. A burger and fries just seemed like a safer play.
The name didn’t really help clarify things for me, I know that much. Was it chicken? If so, what was ‘steak’ about it? Was it steak? If it were steak, why was it breaded and fried? I had never had a steak that was fried like that. And what was the sauce on top of it? “Gravy,” you say? Eh, I wasn’t really a fan of gravy. So, I always passed. That is until I got to college. My friend Christian seemed to like it, and he’s pretty reliable when it comes to food that I’d like, so I decided to give it a whirl, sans gravy, of course. I suppose college was as good a time as any to try new things, right? Some kids studied abroad, others adopted new hairstyles, others still got their first tattoos, and a few tried new religions. Me? I tried chicken fried steak. Lucky for me, it turned out to be pretty good. In fact, it was always kind of a treat when the dining hall decided to put that on the menu.
I can’t remember if it was before or after I gave it a try when I mustered up the courage to ask, “What is this?” Befuddled, those at my table answered, “It’s chicken fried steak.” I replied, “I know, but what is it? Chicken? Steak? What?” Someone said, “Wait, you’ve never had chicken fried steak before?” I answered, “Nope.” I kind of felt like Joe Pesci’s character in “My Cousin Vinny” encountering grits for the first time. Sure, I’d heard of chicken fried steak; I’d just never tasted it. My friends said, “It’s some kind of beef, battered and fried. They call it ‘chicken fried steak’ because it’s a steak that’s fried—like fried chicken.” Finally, I knew what it was. I was learning so much in college!
Actually, to be more precise, chicken fried steak is dish made from cutlets of beef that are tenderized, seasoned, breaded, pan fried (typically not deep fried), and served with a white, creamy gravy. According to an entry titled “Chicken-Fried Steak” on a website called Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, the precise origins of the dish are unknown, but one of the first recipes for an ancestral dish appeared in “The Virginia Housewife,” a cookbook by Mary Randolph, circa 1838. In her recipe, she used cutlets of veal instead of beef (a slight variation, but an important one nonetheless). As beef production increased in areas of the American south, particularly Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma, it became the primary ingredient, and the dish took off in popularity in those states. In fact, it’s part of the official meal of Oklahoma. Still, you’d be hard pressed to find any recipe that specifically references “chicken fried steak” until 1914.
How that moniker came to be and eventually stuck is probably up for debate, but a story in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal seems to have as compelling a take as any. Per the story, a line cook by the name of Jimmy Don Perkins (great name) in Lamesa, Texas, invented the dish by mistake. As legend goes, Jimmy got an order for chicken and fried steak, and he botched it. Instead of making two dishes, he made one—taking a piece of steak, breading it, and frying it, just as he would fry chicken. He served it up with some french fries and gravy, and the term “chicken fried steak” was born. Are those the facts? According to the Texas State House of Representatives they are, and who am I to argue with them? I don’t mess with Texas.
Still, you might be thinking, “Something about this doesn’t ring true.” If you happen to know anything about European cuisine, you might be thinking this sounds a lot like schnitzel (Germany/Austria), beef milanese (Italy), or collops (Scotland). That’s because it is an awful lot like those things. In fact, according to the aforementioned entry in the “Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture,” there’s a solid possibility that working-class German and Austrian immigrants who settled in parts of Texas in the mid-to-late 1800s brought their culinary heritage to their new home, using cheaper cuts of meat with preparations from the homeland to make cost-effective comfort food in the United States. By the late 1800s, numerous cookbooks out of Texas had some variation of schnitzel using beef cutlets.
There you have it! Chicken fried steak, that classic southern comfort food, is likely some variation of the Austrian-German schnitzel that got its name when a Texas line cook by the name of Jimmy Don Perkins (I just wanted to type his name again) mistakenly combined an order for chicken and steak. If you’re anything like I was when I was younger, hopefully this article has given you the reassurance you need to try a really solid meal. And if you’ve been enjoying chicken fried steak, hopefully you now know something that will make you look smarter in front of your friends then next time one of you orders it.
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