What is chicken-fried steak? Surely you jest with such an egregious inquiry. Chicken-fried steak is a delicacy that could only have evolved from good Texan culture. It’s a thin slice of beef, breaded and fried to delightful perfection. It’s cooked just like fried chicken, and most often comes with a generous helping of mashed taters and delicious gravy. If that doesn’t sound like heaven on earth, then we don’t know what does.
But where did this odd dish come from, and who did it first?
As with most food origin stories of any import, it’s an oft-contested topic, and people can become pretty nasty if you fall on the wrong side of the debate. There are any number of stories about the roots of the chicken-fried steak: perhaps it was the product of an odd food research project in 1999, or perhaps the first recipe can be found in an antiquated issue of the Los Angeles Times from 1924, or perhaps the more modern variations found in the Winnipeg Free Press in 1936 or the Household Searchlight Recipe Book in 1949 count for more in your opinion.
According to some food historians, the chicken-fried steak is a lot older than that, and it’s been a southern staple since at least the early 19th century. Can they back it up with hard evidence, though?
Well, we can start by saying that it sort of makes more sense to say it’s an old recipe than it does to say it’s a young recipe. Before modern-day refrigeration, finding the right cut of meat–and keeping it fresh–was a huge obstacle. Even if you managed to find a customer for the right cut right away, you often still needed to go the extra mile to ensure its palatability. Sure, you could season it to taste, but that didn’t hide anything you could see with the naked eye.
Cooks often chose to bread and fry meats to make them more mouth-watering. It worked. Why wouldn’t it? We have all the tools to make the perfect cut of steak today, and we’re still chicken-frying it. Sacrilege to some, but heaven to others. It doesn’t matter where you go: Austin, Dallas, or out to The Woodlands. You can find the dish in all its splendor.
Even so, the modern-day origins are debated endlessly. One of the most popular theories contends that a short-order cook, Jimmy Don Perkins, in Lamesa, Texas accidentally made the dish before it was popularized thereafter. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Lamesa is also considered one of the best places to make your order.