How Chicken-Fried Steak Got Its Texas Twang

[Photograph: Melanie Haupt]

There's no denying that chicken-fried steak is a culinary icon of Texas. The dish can be found in restaurants throughout the state, and diners argue passionately over which version is best. They map out the "Chicken-Fried Steak Belt," detailing the differences between the dry coating favored in the western part of the state and the thick, egg-rich style in the east.

This statewide enthusiasm was codified in 2011, when the Texas State House of Representatives declared October 26 "Chicken Fried Steak Day," noting that "this signature dish occupies a special place in the culinary culture of the Lone Star State." It's hard to argue with the force of Texas law.

Some take it a step further, claiming that chicken-fried steak defies categorization as a mere food item. "Chicken-fried steak tells the story of Texas," Serious Eats contributor Melanie Haupt declared in an article posted on this site two years ago. In the article, she quotes Lisa Fain, author of the popular Homesick Texan blog, who once described the dish as "taking something that's less than palatable, in this case a tough piece of beef, and with a little ingenuity turning it into something delectable.... This perseverance, creativity, and positive attitude completely embraces the spirit of Texas and the Texan way of doing things."

But how did Texas cooks come up with this delicious dish in the first place? Many writers and researchers start by looking into Texas's history, then land on an answer that's misleading at best. Often, they seize upon the fact that a lot of Germans settled in central Texas in the late 19th century.

James McWilliams captures that prevailing narrative in a 2013 article in Texas Monthly: "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," he writes, though said evidence is conspicuously absent from his article and myriad others like it. McWilliams elaborates, "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." He goes on to argue that, regardless of how the dish arrived in Texas, its preparation dovetailed neatly with available resources in the home kitchens of the cattle-rich state:

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.

Such accounts draw more on romantic imagination than on historical evidence. Try as I might, I couldn't find any evidence in the printed record suggesting that chicken-fried steak was brought to Texas by German immigrants in the 19th century. It didn't evolve out of home cooks' efforts to make do with lowly ingredients, either. In fact, chicken-fried steak didn't originate in Texas at all.

Instead, chicken-fried steak is a product of early-20th-century commercial kitchens in Kansas and Colorado, where it was a popular restaurant dish. Like a Midwestern transplant who moves to Dallas and dons a 10-gallon hat, chicken-fried steak did eventually take on a strong Texas identity, but that didn't occur until the 1970s. The way that identity was forged says much about Americans' shifting culinary tastes and aspirations in the latter half of the 20th century.

Batter Up: From Fried to Chicken-Fried

[Photograph: Joshua Bousel]

Chicken-fried steak is, quite simply, a piece of steak that's battered and cooked in the same way one would fry chicken. Though upscale restaurants might use pricey cuts like tenderloin, most opt for less-expensive round steak or cube steak. The meat is generally pounded with a mallet or run through a mechanical tenderizer, then dredged in an egg-and-flour batter and fried, either in a skillet filled with oil or in a deep fryer. The finished product, encased in crisp, golden-brown batter, is traditionally topped with a rich cream gravy made from pan drippings.

Long before they were "chicken-frying" steaks, home cooks were pan-frying them across America. Pan-frying was the practical home cook's answer to the more time- and resource-intensive 19th-century version of broiling—more akin to what we'd call grilling today—in which meat was cooked on a gridiron over a bed of clean, glowing coals. Rather than waiting for fresh coals to heat up, cooks began instead placing a cast iron pan directly over hot ashes and frying their steaks in just enough fat to lubricate the pan.

Dr. A. W. Chase explained it well in his 1893 homemaker's book, Dr. Chase's Third, Last and Complete Receipt Book and Household Physician: "Do any of you have to get up early in the morning and get breakfast in such a terrible hurry that you can't wait for nice coals to broil the steak?" His solution: Put a little hot butter in a pan, and fry it instead.

But fried steak was not universally loved. "The hastily fried steak," Marion Harland sniffed in an 1889 issue of The Home-Maker magazine, "will be eaten without relish by husband and children...it really is hard and tasteless, and terribly indigestible." Cooks tried various methods to improve the results; the most common solutions called for either pounding or scoring the steak, seasoning it with salt and pepper, then dredging it in flour. Usually the finished meat was flavored with a gravy made from water poured over the pan drippings.

Dr. Chase offered one recommendation that may or may not have presaged the chicken-fried steak we know today: "After pounding or hacking the steak lightly," he advised, "salt and pepper it, roll it in finely crushed cracker crumbs, and brown quickly in the butter. You will find it a decided improvement on the leathery substance called fried steak, and a very palatable substitute for broiled."

This is the closest precursor to a chicken-fried steak I've been able to find, and it's not certain that one descended directly from the other. What we do know is that right around World War I, a dish called "chicken-fried steak" started popping up on restaurant menus—and those restaurants weren't in Texas.

At the time, fried chicken was a popular restaurant dish, and this new steak preparation featured a similarly thick, crisp batter-based shell. Despite the claim that home cooks devised the preparation as a way to make inexpensive cuts of beef palatable, the very first appearance in print of the phrase "chicken fried steak" was in a series of ads for Phelps's Dining Room and Cafeteria, which ran in the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1914. By 1917, cafés in Kansas were advertising the dish, too, starting with Quinn's Cafe in Beloit, whose specials included "Choice Veal Chops," "Chicken Fried Steak," and "Calves' Brains with Eggs."

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The pricing on the 1918 menu at the Hotel Mit-Way in Emporia, Kansas, suggests chicken-fried steak's relative position on the scale of quality or esteem. Far from the bottom of the slate, chicken-fried steak with shoestring potatoes fetched a relatively extravagant 45 cents. A broiled porterhouse (75 cents) or fried spring chicken (50 cents) cost more, but a thriftier diner could make do with prime rib (40 cents), minced cream chicken on toast (40 cents), or fried catfish (35 cents).

Chicken-fried steak soon spread throughout the Great Plains states, showing up in 1921 at Newman's Eats in Tulsa and the Woodmen Cafeteria in Omaha. It then made its way out to California, where it was served at Hammond's Jersey Cafe in Riverside in 1925 (priced at 40 cents, the same as "cold Alaska salmon" and "roast sirloin of beef") and at the Arroyo Cafe in San Luis Obispo in 1928.

Until the 1930s, virtually all print references to chicken-fried steak involved restaurants, suggesting it did indeed originate in commercial kitchens rather than in the home. In fact, the first printed recipe for "chicken-fried steak" that I can find appeared in 1935, in the Omaha World-Herald's cooking column.

The first record I can find of chicken-fried steak served in Texas is from roughly the same time—1932, almost two decades after it was mentioned in those Colorado newspaper ads—when it appeared in an ad for the "Caveteria" at the Baker Hotel. But, though the dish seems to have finally "steaked" a claim in the Lone Star State by this point, it would be discussed as a universal staple of western cafés, and not as a Texas specialty, for at least the next four decades.

Middle America's Restaurant Staple

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[Photograph: Joshua Bousel]

Chicken-fried steak's popularity surged in the 1930s and 1940s, so much so that it became something of an icon of American restaurant food. It even became embroiled in a decades-long cultural debate over what Americans should eat when they went out for a meal.

At their annual meeting in 1942, the members of the National Restaurant Association compiled a list of Americans' top 10 favorite restaurant dishes. Chicken-fried steak ranked number three:

  1. Ham & eggs, country style
  2. Prime ribs of beef, au jus
  3. Chicken fried steak, and country gravy
  4. Lobster thermidor
  5. New England boiled dinner
  6. Fried oysters, with cole slaw and tartar sauce
  7. Baked Virginia ham, with candied sweet potatoes
  8. Breast of capon, with mushrooms
  9. Poached filet of sole, marguery
  10. Deviled crab au gratin

This list is most notable for its juxtaposition of different dishes, with comfort foods appearing along with fancier items that might be labeled "gourmet." This tension—between the meat-and-potatoes staples that dominated menus in Middle American cafeterias and more ambitious, European-inspired dishes—heightened in the 1950s and 1960s, as restaurateurs set their sights on more cosmopolitan and elaborate dishes, but faced resistance from diners accustomed to heartier American fare. Chicken-fried steak ended up a symbolic representative of one side of this increasingly contentious dispute.

In 1953, Jack Woodman of the New York Times filed a travel piece about touring the Intermountain West that highlighted the dish's lowbrow reputation. "This is hardly a land for gourmets," he wrote. "To be brutally frank, you won't starve in the Intermountain West but you may tire of the region's omnipresent 'chicken fried steak.'"

Aspiring gourmets wanted to change that. This was the era of Julia Child, whose 1961 book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, inspired a generation of ambitious cooks, and of Craig Claiborne, who took over as food editor of the New York Times in 1957. Claiborne shifted the paper's focus away from home cooking and toward fine-dining restaurants, for which he introduced a new four-star review system.

The passion for French cuisine was growing all over the country, including in Texas. In 1961, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News attended the second annual dinner of the Dallas chapter of Les Amis d'Escoffier, an organization founded "to continue the standards of haute cuisine and culinary tradition established by [the great French chef] Auguste Escoffier."

"The members and chefs of the Escoffier Society," the reporter noted, "are waging a successful battle to acquaint every part of Texas with good food, properly prepared." Their definition of "good food" included dishes like timbale de homard à l'américaine (lobster flambéed in brandy), against which were aligned "those overdone wafers of steak encased in an indigestible batter, smeared with a pasty white mucilage, and called chicken-fried steak."

Texas's restaurateurs were looking overseas for inspiration, too. When the Texas Restaurant Association held its annual convention in Dallas in 1962, the organizers erected a replica of the Eiffel Tower over the dance floor and staged an "international festival party," with booth after booth displaying foods from around the globe. "These 5,500 restaurant men are very serious about improving both their food and patronage," one newspaper reported, "although they did nothing this year to outlaw chicken fried steak."

The Rise of a Texas Icon

[Photograph: Joshua Bousel]

For every trend, though, there is a countertrend, and the Europe-worshipping "gourmet" movement was bound to generate a backlash, which finally crested in the 1970s. It was part of a larger cultural reaction against pretension and a longing for more down-home authenticity in everything from politics to food. And chicken-fried steak was as disposed to carry symbolic weight as it was thick cream gravy. Once again, it was caught up in the discussion, and, in the process, it gained a distinctive Texas twang.

Part of the credit for that goes to Dan Jenkins, a longtime writer for Sports Illustrated. In 1972, he published Semi-Tough, a comic novel chronicling the misadventures of Billy Clyde Puckett, a star Texas halfback who moves east to play for the New York Giants. Chicken-fried steak appears prominently in the book, both at the fictional Herb's Café in Puckett's hometown of Fort Worth and in New York City, where his love interest, Barbara Jane Bookman, tries to make him his favorite meal. "She just missed making it as good as they used to at Herb's," Puckett comments, "but of course the meal she fixed was a whole lot better than the food we sometimes pay a surly Frenchman forty dollars for."

The novel was a best-seller, and, back in Fort Worth (which was also Dan Jenkins's hometown), it created a chicken-fried-steak boom. At Massey's Restaurant, the real-life model for Herb's Café, half of the lunch orders were for chicken-fried steaks, and the restaurant soon found itself serving 6,000 of them a week.

The down-to-earth connotations of chicken-fried steak were essential to its appeal. In 1974, Richard West declared in Texas Monthly that "the chicken-fried [steak] is a dish that is somewhat cumbersome for aesthetes. For that matter, the whole state is rather cumbersome for aesthetes...you will starve overnight waiting for pâté, escargot d'Alsace, or some other member of the haute cuisine family."

Texans created such a fuss about chicken-fried steak that everyone started associating it specifically with that state. In 1976, Bill Collins, writing for the Knight News Wire, declared to a national audience that it was "hard to imagine a more American dish than chicken-fried steak, yet it seems not many Americans outside Texas have tasted it, with the exception of Iowa and other midwestern states." But that was about to change.

"The glories of Southern cooking are being rediscovered," the food columnist for Indiana's Evansville Courier wrote just after the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter, in 1977. "The election of a Southern president has brought the cuisine of his region into the spotlight."

In April 1977, the New York Times identified a trend of "reverse chic," in which anything that the elites considered unfashionable suddenly became cool. "Jimmy Carter did not begin it," the paper noted, "although in a way he legitimized it." The sudden popularity of chicken-fried steak was singled out as a prime example:

Not long ago, W said that chicken fried steak was out. W is the weekly put out by Fairchild Publications, and it is our most consistent guide to the trendy. . . . [Chicken fried steak] has always been a big hit in Texas and most people did not know that it was to be even found in New York until they read that it was now out, and not in. The other day, however Serendipity, which is a fashionable restaurant cum boutique on the East Side, put chicken fried steak on the menu. This was perfect reverse chic.

This fascination with a supposedly genuine Texas dish was part of a growing interest in regional foodways. Calvin Trillin, who traveled around the country writing the "U.S. Journal" series for The New Yorker in the late 1960s through the early '80s, wrote of being directed to the "best restaurant in town," only to find what he termed "La Maison de la Casa House, Continental Cuisine." So he started filing the occasional piece singing the praises of local specialties, like boudin in Louisiana and chili in Cincinnati.

Mimi Sheraton adopted a similar stance when she toured Texas for the New York Times in 1978. "I avoided restaurants billed as French or fancy and spent most of my eating time in pursuit of native fare," she wrote. In Texas, that meant barbecue and Tex-Mex and "to a lesser and more lowdown extent, chicken fried steak, known colloquially as chicken fried." (She loved the barbecue, but was less impressed by the "chicken fried.")

In the American imagination, at least, chicken-fried steak had been indelibly stamped as an iconic vernacular cuisine. Its vogue has waxed and waned over the years, declining in the 1980s amid health concerns over cholesterol and red meat, then roaring back in the early 2000s as diners embraced classic comfort foods. One thing has remained constant, though: its close association with the state of Texas.

That regional bond may have developed relatively late in the dish's history, but it's now as firmly embedded in the state's foodways as slow-smoked brisket and Frito pie. And I see no reason to change that now.