IT IS SAID THAT YOU CAN MAKE ANYTHING TASTE GOOD if you batter and fry it. I cannot confirm this for sure, because there are still some foods prepared this way that I have not sampled—but not many. I’ve been eating my way around the state to check things off the list, and I’ve done it the Texas way. Which is to say, I’ve stuck with chicken-fried.
In the beginning was chicken-fried steak, of course, which is one of those items that separate Texans from other people, especially Yankees, who cannot fathom the notion of battering an unappetizingly tough cut of beef and then frying it in a puddle of grease. These days their objection has something to do with cholesterol, I believe, though the truth is, they’ve always considered the dish a sign of an uncultured culture. But I ask you, what else are you going to do to make a bad cut of beef taste good? And if you don’t do it, won’t the meat just go to waste?
That dilemma was probably the motivation behind the creation of the chicken-fried steak. Cowboys needed a simple way to make their grub more edible out on the range, so they took a cue from the Germans who were pouring into the state in the middle of the nineteenth century, who breaded and fried a veal cutlet and called it Wiener schnitzel. The cowboys did the same with round steak, which was much more plentiful in these parts. They simply moistened the meat, probably with water or sourdough starter, dipped it in flour, and then fried it in about a quarter-inch of hot lard or beef tallow. The result was cheap, tasty, and filling, a bit of culinary magic.
The chuck wagon cooks didn’t have eggs or milk, but once refrigeration allowed folks to store those items, the classic chicken-fried-steak recipe evolved: Round steak is pounded to tenderize it, dipped in an egg-and-milk wash, and dredged with flour, then dipped and dredged once more before being pan-fried in up to half an inch of hot oil. (It’s permissible to dip-and-dredge only once, but double dipping produces a better-looking and more flavorful crust.) This is the way chicken used to be fried too, which is how chicken-fried steak got its name. Which brings up a salient point: In the fast-food era, most chicken—and much chicken-fried steak—is no longer fried that way; it’s immersed in oil—i.e., it’s deep-fried. Some argue that the frying technique doesn’t matter. I give them the benefit of the doubt only when the end results justify it. If you’re an absolute purist these days, you’ll miss out on a lot of delicious grub.
Although we Texans don’t chicken-fry as much as we used to, when it comes to good eats, old ways die hard and we are an ingenious lot; witness the variety of chicken-fried foods out there, which would surely puzzle those old cowhands. There were disappointments as I explored this new culinary frontier. I never did find a good chicken-fried cake or brownie, for example. Helpful friends pointed out that fried candy bars and other sweets were becoming fairgrounds staples, but they don’t count because they make no pretense of being chicken-fried (most use a packaged funnel cake or beer batter). Besides, why waste a perfectly good batter on something already as sublime as a Snickers bar or as irredeemable as a Twinkie or an Oreo? Chicken-fried Spam is a regular entry at Austin’s annual Spamarama cook-off, but I couldn’t find one restaurant where you can plunk down your money and enjoy it. Other chicken-fried meats, such as pork chops and chicken (oh, the unintentional irony in calling a dish chicken-fried chicken!), were too commonplace to include. Sometimes I was simply too late: The Driskill Grill, in Austin, once served a chicken-fried-rabbit salad (you know rabbit; that’s