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Chicken Fried State

How a lowly cut of beef—breaded, spiced, and fried to order—was transformed into a vessel for the modern food system.

By December 2013Comments

Photograph by Adam Voorhes

At lunchtime outside Mel’s Country Cafe, in Tomball, a truck dealership’s worth of pickups are jammed into the gravel parking lot. Inside, their owners are sitting cheek by jowl, enjoying Jeff Henry’s famous chicken-fried steak. Whether it’s the light golden crust, the tender cut of meat, or the thick white gravy, the collective mood at Mel’s is buoyant. Henry feeds hundreds of patrons a day, but when I pressed him later that afternoon, he was reluctant to say much about the finer details of his hand-breaded, delicately spiced, critically acclaimed specialty. He did confide, though, that the recipe’s origins extend deep into the maternal lineage of his wife’s family, which settled in Texas many generations ago. If any place has a rightful claim to serving an authentic version of one of the state’s most iconic dishes, it’s this little cafe half an hour northwest of Houston. 

According to legend, the chicken-fried steak was born a century ago as a mistake, when a cook at Ethel’s Home Cooking, in Lamesa, misread an order ticket for “chicken and fried steak.” The reality, of course, isn’t so tidy. 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. 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. 

Whatever route chicken-fried steak took from the Old World to the New, its journey got more interesting after it arrived in Texas. The dish was the ideal food for a westernizing people. 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. And like all such humble, home-cooked dishes, it was almost infinitely variable. Every chicken-fried steak was different because every cook was different, every batch of firewood was different, and every cow was different. Even the cast-iron skillets, seasoned over decades, curated an archive of distinct flavors.

As anyone who’s been to a Chili’s lately can attest, those days have gone the way of the cowboy. Over the course of the twentieth century, the from-scratch chicken-fried steak vanished almost completely, as a newly industrialized food system turned the dish into a uniformly produced menu item for franchise restaurants lining the frontage roads of Texas highways. Today most chicken-fried steak comes frozen from the back of a truck and is served in a restaurant whose “chef” either pressed a button on a microwaveor heated it in a deep fryer full of cheap oil.

It’s easy to lament how industrialization has sapped the authenticity of this historic dish, but that argument may miss the point. The mass-produced chicken-fried steak of the twenty-first century is as much a Texas icon as the homemade chicken-fried steak of yesteryear. Where one represents our rough-hewn frontier origins, the other is the perfect emblem of the modern Texas we actually live in, a state dominated by cities, two-income families, and big business—including, of course, big agriculture. 

Myriad factors brought us the thawed-to-order, impeccably oval chicken-fried steak that you can reliably find at a Chili’s in El Paso or Dallas. But the most important were three converging developments: big roads, big feedlots, and big grain. These essential elements of the modern American food system all had one thing in common: they were pioneered or adopted early in Texas. For better or worse, Texas pretty much created our industrial agriculture system. And no dish better encapsulates this than chicken-fried steak.

The story starts with roads. In 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act set aside $25 billion for national highway development. Almost a tenth of this was earmarked for Texas, but unlike most states, Texas had already been investing heavily in its roads. As early as the nineteenth century, the economic implications of staying ahead of the transportation curve were evident to the state’s emerging business interests. Upon learning from an 1890 federal survey that Texas lagged behind every other state in road development, the Texas Legislature initiated a program that used tax dollars to fund the amelioration of roads, print road maps, improve roadside drainage, and establish clear mile markers. By 1917, with the newly formed Texas Highway Department vowing to “get the farmer out of the mud,” about 200,000 cars were sputtering along Texas highways. Only about 10 percent of these roads were paved; the rest were composed of loosely compacted crushed shells, gravel, or dirt. Twenty years later, nearly 75 percent were neatly paved with a relatively smooth sheen of asphalt.

The postwar years were a boom time for Texas highway construction, thanks to two legislative provisions. The first came in 1946, when voters approved the Good Roads Amendment, which appropriated revenue from gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees to secure annual funding for state highways. (It was, incidentally, the first constitutional amendment ever pushed through the Legislature by a woman, state representative Neveille Colson, from Navasota.) The second came in 1949, when the Legislature passed the Colson-Briscoe Act (co-sponsored by future governor Dolph Briscoe), which guaranteed that the Texas Highway Department would receive $15 million a year from the state’s Omnibus Tax Clearance Fund. Within two years, the number of paved rural roads in Texas doubled, proof of the state’s unusual attention to rural interests. During the sixties, when our 40,000 miles of paved “farm-to-market” roads—the only such roads in the country—were interwoven with the mighty interstate highways that linked Texas to the rest of the nation, we achieved a transportation advantage over every other state that we maintain to this day. 

Our early attention to roads didn’t merely make it easier to get from point A to point B; it encouraged the construction of feedlots. The concept of feedlots was not new, but in Texas they reached their apotheosis, thanks in part to a wealthy Bostonian-turned-Texan named Greenlief W. Simpson. In the late nineteenth century, struck by the vast physical distance separating Texas cattle from Midwestern cattle buyers and meatpacking plants, Simpson decided to apply a factory mentality to the way Texans raised and processed cattle. 

His first move was to purchase the Fort Worth Union Stockyards in 1893. Then, to ensure a steady supply of cattle, Simpson offered regional ranchers 50 cents more per head than out-of-state buyers were paying. Soon finding himself overrun with livestock, he encouraged the nation’s two largest meat-packers—the Swift and Armour companies—to expand their operations into Fort Worth. As added incentive, he offered each company a one-third interest in his newly named Fort Worth Stockyards Company. This move sealed the deal. When the improved and expanded Stockyards opened in 1904, Fort Worth suddenly became the fifth-largest livestock market in the United States.

Under its influence, the rules of raising cattle in Texas changed. Rather than driving thousands of cattle up the Chisholm and Eastern trails to markets in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Omaha, ranchers could deliver them by local rail—and, later, local roads—to nearby Fort Worth. There, the animals would be slaughtered, packaged, and sold with the kind of efficiency that was making Henry Ford a symbol of American ingenuity. 

As the need to ship cattle out of state for slaughter and distribution diminished, so did the need to fatten them out of state. And so Texas cattlemen began building more and bigger feedlots. After businessman H. W. Stanton set up a feedlot on the edge of Yellow House Canyon, near Lubbock, in 1931, Ripley’s Believe It or Not declared its 2,230-foot water trough the longest in the world. The world, in turn, marveled. 

And then the feedlots got even bigger. The Sudan Livestock and Feeding Company, established in 1940 an hour northwest of Lubbock, went from holding 2,000 cattle to holding 25,000. By 1968, when the highway system was fully integrated, nearly 2 million cattle were going to Texas feedlots every year. 

And their diet was distinctly Texan. While much of the nation’s cattle industry was stuffing feed troughs with bushels of hybrid corn grown in the Midwest, Texans preferred sorghum, a comparatively drought-resistant and protein-rich grain that was easier to grow in our hot, dry climes. But sorghum was hardly an ideal crop. It typically grew to be ten or even fourteen feet tall, which often caused it to fall over and made it difficult to harvest with combines. Texas farmers wanted a hybridized, shorter sorghum plant that could bear the burden of more grain. But a sorghum hybrid had eluded them for decades. The problem was that the male and female parts of the plant were so closely situated that self-pollination, which blocks the introduction of outside genes (and thus the creation of a hybrid), seemed to be impossible to prevent. 

But in the early fifties, J. Roy Quinby, a Wortham native and Texas A&M grad who collaborated with a USDA scientist in a tiny agricultural substation in Chillicothe, arrived at a solution. Quinby began working with plants that could not fertilize themselves—“cytoplasmic male sterility” is the technical name for the condition afflicting plants whose male portions do not develop—and therefore could be crossbred more easily. Quinby’s humble little lab gave birth to “supersorghums,” which proved something of a miracle feed for nearby feedlots and quickly became Texas’s number one grain crop. Farmers went from reaping a respectable 1,200 pounds per acre to 5,000 pounds per acre.

Though supersorghum caught on in only a few other states, it made the vertical integration of the Texas beef industry possible. Prior to the sorghum explosion, a large minority of ranchers, even during the heyday of the Fort Worth Stockyards, still sent their cattle out of state for finishing and processing. But due partly to Northwest Texas’s record-busting sorghum crop, we were now able to fatten most of our cattle on our own. 

By the late sixties the pieces were now in place for the modern industrial food system to take off. Texas, which had the most cattle in the nation, also boasted the most roads in the nation, the most feedlots in the nation, and the most feed in the nation. And yet, if you were to go looking for a chicken-fried steak in, say, 1969, chances are you’d still get one made the old-fashioned way. The final element had not yet been introduced.

That task would be left to John Baugh, who grew up on a ranch in Waco in the twenties and at the age of thirteen started working at his local A&P supermarket. He was an ambitious kid who, as he stocked groceries, dreamed of running his own business. By 1946 he had moved to Houston, where he and his wife, Eula Mae, started a food distribution company called Zero Foods. He personally delivered bagged frozen fruit to grocery stores, while Eula Mae kept the books. The couple settled into Houston society, joined the Baptist church, and prepared to start a family in prosperous postwar America. 

Professionally speaking, Baugh never settled. He was especially attuned to the cultural changes influencing family life after the war. In particular, he noticed that more women were leaving the home and entering the workforce. With the rise of two-income families, Baugh reasoned, there would be less time to prepare the kind of home-cooked meal he grew up eating in his mother’s kitchen. In 1969 he started a company that capitalized on these insights.  

Sysco (short for Systems and Services Company), which went public a year after its founding, grew steadily through acquisitions, product diversification, and increased geographic expansion. Over the years, Sysco bought dozens of food distribution companies, branched out beyond food products to supply every kitchen gadget and cleaning device imaginable, and consolidated its restaurant-chain distribution centers when Applebee’s, Chili’s, and TGI Fridays were making a major move into strip malls and frontage roads.

Today Sysco is the largest marketer and distributor of food-service items in the country. It employs 48,000 people, serves 425,000 clients, and generates $44 billion a year in sales. Its closest competitor is half its size. Its next-closest competitor is a third its size. Sysco sells quail eggs and chopsticks. It sells yuca root and cookie dough. It sells hotel soap and organic wheatgrass. And among the 200,000 or so other items Sysco hawks in unfathomable bulk, it also offers a frozen slab of breaded meat it calls Country Fried Steak.

By any standard, Sysco’s version of chicken-fried steak is the antithesis of authenticity. But it is the pinnacle of large-scale engineered cuisine. Baugh, who died in 2007, once said, “Frozen foods taste better than anything that I could grow in my garden,” and his attitude permeates the company’s eight variations of chicken-fried steak like a mild case of freezer burn. All the steaks, including the Awesome Angus Country Fried Steak and the “double-thick” Supreme Angus Country Fried Steak, are prefabricated and frozen for posterity. They come in “a natural shape,” with “made-from-scratch appeal” and the promise that they will be “preserved to perfection.” What the meal lacks in culinary character it makes up for in economic predictability. Restaurants earn about $5 on every Sysco chicken-fried steak they sell.   

Sysco knows that the era of great-grandmother’s cooking is over because, as Baugh sensed when he started the company, the era of home cooking is over. “I doubt we would have prevailed had not the wonderful women come out of their homes in 1942 . . . to support the war effort,” he told ID Report, a trade publication. You could say that Sysco emerged to feed us so we didn’t have to feed ourselves. Joe Don Eilers, a product manager in Sysco’s beef department, said in 2000 that his division had noticed “a paradigm shift away from people who know how to cook.” The company is well aware that the average American family currently spends half its food budget in restaurants and that as recently as the eighties this figure was only 27 percent. 

You can find the result of this all over Texas, in big cities and small towns. Today, if you walk into a rural diner and order a chicken-fried steak, you will likely receive, situated alongside white-gravy mashed potatoes, a standardized puck of beef boasting around 1,500 calories and 105 grams of fat. It may not be the best meal you’ve ever had, or the healthiest, but it will be thawed with love, warmed to perfection, and perhaps even served with a hokey dose of ersatz country pride.

In a way, we asked for this. A mediocre and relatively inexpensive chicken-fried steak defrosted at a local “fast-casual” restaurant is what we get for leaving the land, abandoning the kitchen, and tossing off tradition. Most people think the trade-off is worth it. 

But some people don’t. Back at Mel’s Country Cafe, hundreds of customers come in every day asking for something else. They want a meal that has escaped time, a dish that provides a welcome taste of nostalgia. Of course, it would be extremely difficult for Jeff Henry to fulfill hundreds of orders for the real deal without rivers of white gravy flowing from an industrial supplier. He’s not butchering his own beef or growing the wheat that goes into his breading. He’s drawing on the present to approximate the past, simultaneously subverting and affirming the industrialized status quo. 

What Texans get out of this compromise is a benefit few consumers would wish to sacrifice: choice. The industrialization of Texas’s food system has made Sysco’s mass-produced chicken-fried steak ubiquitous, and thousands of diners vote daily with their forks to keep it that way. At the same time, our modern culinary landscape has prompted a backlash in the form of the modern foodie movement, with its countless blogs and food trucks and artisanal makers of everything from small-batch beers to chocolates. 

Perhaps the oddest manifestation of this culinary renaissance is the elevation of the chicken-fried steak, a product of necessity and poverty, to the status of a retro gourmet rarity. Like a vinyl LP in the age of iTunes, a made-to-order chicken-fried steak transcends its utilitarian value. It’s a message, a symbolic lament for a lost golden age.

Of course, some people, happy to be able to choose between Mel’s old-fashioned chicken-fried steak and Chili’s perfectly serviceable version, might argue that the golden age is now.

James McWilliams is a professor of history at Texas State University–San Marcos and the author of The Pecan: A History of America’s Native Nut (University of Texas Press).

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