The history of the American chicken fried steak and gravy
Our latest chapter on the Biggening of America, as our beloved leader would put it, discusses the chicken fried steak
"Only a rank degenerate would drive 1,500 miles across Texas without eating a chicken-fried steak" - Larry McMurtry.
One of my first articles on FoodTribe was about enormous pork tenderloin sandwiches, and it dawned on me that I have completely neglected its big brother in the Big 'Murrican Food family. When I feel 'truly in need' of comfort through eating, the most satisfying way to soothe the savage beast is a big cream-gravy-smothered plate of chicken fried steak. No, I never waste a second's thought wondering why, exactly, I am a fatass.
Simply, a large, cheap piece of beef is beaten into submission, breaded and fried in hot fat, plated with mashed potatoes and both are covered in white cream gravy. That is a chicken fried steak, canon and verse, a truly American food that of course we stole from somebody else.
At times somebody tries to sneak green things onto a CFS platter. I appreciate the thought, although I may not show it.
Of course there is somewhat of a history behind this
Germans always fried pork, and Scots always fried anything dead. The Milanese also did something similar, but due to their use of red sauce, their level of blame in respect to this is uncertain. Anyway, Germans settled in Texas, wanted Wienerschnitzel, but there were no pigs. So they made it out of cows instead. It appealed to cowboys, oil rig hands, and other local ruffians. Scottish immigrants settling in Appalachia developed something similar, fast forward 150 years, the colonies merge together, and now it is featured on the menu of every mom-and-pop from sea to shining sea.
A layered schematic of a typical CFS construction
More background. This is a serious subject. Pay attention, please.
The recipe became popular out of the necessity of making the most of a tough piece of beef, such as round, chuck, hanger or flank steak. One secret benefit is that these tough pieces of beef often have stronger beef flavors. The more obvious benefit is the deep fried crust, along with the thick cream gravy that often accompanies it. That's 'Murrican! Some will apply a brown gravy, which some purists claim changes the nature of the dish to 'country fried steak', which believe it or not is an actual point of debate amongst the Truck Stop Set.
Pictured: a brown gravy. Not a chicken fried steak. Sorry.
My take is thus: if you fry your breaded steak in a deep fryer, as God and Jeebus intended, then you have no opportunity for beef drippings, therefore no beef gravy. But you must by law have some sort of gravy, so a roux is made out of whatever handy fat exists (typically lard), and the resulting savory, creamy nectar is white. On the other hand, if you fry your steak in a skillet (as would be done in the 'country' where deep fryers might be scarce), some drippings and other debris are left behind that allows the formation of a darker gravy. The steak, as well, would be crusty but not as crispy as it would have been in a deep fryer.
The expert in these things has spoken. So let it be written.
So, crispy beef, white gravy: Chicken Fried Steak. Crusty beef, brown gravy: Country Fried Steak. Both are good although one is better. Similar to my landmark 'Stuffing v. Dressing' ruling, negligence in the use of terms will result in financial ruin brought on by avoidance from an educated public. Or so I believe.