texasmonthly.com: What got you started writing about food?
John Morthland: I got into it through music. In the early seventies, after several years as a rock critic, I was getting burned out on contemporary music and started looking back at all kinds of blues, country, gospel, early rock ‘n’ roll, KC jazz—the stuff that today is called roots music. I delved deeper and deeper into regional American music, which was fading or faded, and that led me into regional culture in general.
In other words, through New Orleans R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, Louisiana swamp pop and swamp blues, Cajun and zydeco, I discovered crawfish, jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice. Ditto western swing, Texas blues, and conjunto and chicken-fried steak, Texas-style barbecue, and Tex-Mex. Memphis blues, rockabilly, and gospel and Memphis barbecue and soul food.
Then I started exploring regional American foods in general—salmon culture in the Northwest, for example, which I certainly didn’t come to through regional musics (by now, I sometimes came to the music through the food as with Basque restaurants in Nevada or the Portuguese restaurants of New Bedford, Massachusetts). I was also learning about many more ethnic cuisines at this time, and one thing I eventually noticed was that whatever dish I most enjoyed at an ethnic restaurant—pho at Vietnamese places, for example—it invariably turned out to be that culture’s comfort food.
Though I didn’t actually start writing about food until the late eighties or early nineties, by then I had regional and comfort foods down, and that’s what I chose to write about. Calvin Trillin’s collections of food writing were a powerful influence; not that I write as stylishly as him, but through his success I realized you could write about these kinds of foods, and there were people who would want to read it. And that you could write about this food with a sense of humor, which was virtually nonexistent in more traditional food writing.
texasmonthly.com: What sets you apart from other food writers?
JM: I don’t think many food writers got into it the way I did, and while I like a fine-dining meal as much as the next person, and sometimes write about it, I am still oriented primarily towards regional and comfort foods. Lots of other writers are now, too, as it’s become a legit pursuit in many quarters, but the main food publications give it little more than lip service while still emphasizing fine dining. As a function of my interests, I’m probably a little more keyed up than many writers towards the cultures from which these foods come.
texasmonthly.com: How did your crusade to find chicken-fried foods come about?
JM: I heard about the chicken-fried bacon at Sodolak’s in Snook and wondered how much other unusual stuff was out there.
texasmonthly.com: How did you find the restaurants that serve these chicken-fried dishes?
JM: Some I’d already heard about over the years or learned of just by asking friends, especially fellow food writers or those in the food and restaurant biz. I was informed of others by Texas Monthly food editor Pat Sharpe and her crew of restaurant reviewers around the state. And Texas Monthly interns helped find some by calling around to trade groups such as the Texas Beef Council and the Texas Restaurant Association.
texasmonthly.com: You mentioned a “witty dining companion” in the story. Who did you bring along with you?
JM: That was my good friend and fellow writer Joe Nick Patoski. We were on our way to see a Mexican League baseball game in Nuevo Laredo when we stopped in Cotulla so I could check out the fries.
texasmonthly.com: What is the connection between Germans and frying chickens? Which came first: German-fried veal or chicken-fried chicken?
JM: I have no idea, but most cultures in America and around the world have some form of fried chicken. Chickens are fairly easily raised nearly everywhere and are thus the most inexpensive meat, too. Never underestimate that factor in any culture’s cuisine.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite non-steak chicken-fried food?
JM: I have to go with that bacon from Sodolak’s, which is really amazing.
texasmonthly.com: Did you find any chicken-fried items that you left off the list?
JM: Venison at the Chisholm Club had to be dropped from the article because they went out of business after I ate there; snapper at El Mirador in San Antonio was dropped because the chef who cooked it as an occasional “special” left that restaurant, and they quit offering it. Lots of other stuff (pork chops, certain fish) just didn’t seem exotic enough to qualify.
texasmonthly.com: What are some other examples of “nouveau cowboy cooking”?
JM: Pretty much anything Grady Spears serves, as he’s the father of all this, with other chefs following in his wake: stuff like chipotle meatloaf, roasted pork tenderloin with apple poblano chutney, wild game tamales, quail quesadillas, garlic-chile mashed potatoes, jalapeño cream corn, buttermilk pecan biscuit pudding. It’s basically contemporary cowboy gourmet—meaning citified or gussied up—interpretations of what the original cowboys and vaqueros ate, such as steaks with unusual sauces (Dr Pepper flank steak, anyone?).
texasmonthly.com: Where is the best chicken-fried steak in Texas?
JM: Though chicken-fried steak is fading in Texas, there are still way too many places that do it well, especially in the smaller towns (it’s really the cities where it’s getting harder to find good stuff). I have not even had the opportunity to try many of these, though I’m still working on it. Or, I could argue that the best chicken-fried steak is the next (good) one—which in my case will probably be from Hoover’s Cooking in Austin. That’s where I eat CFS in my hometown. And probably my all-time favorite is the doozy that was served up at Virginia’s on South First in Austin, which closed sometime in the early ninties. Lord, do I miss that woman.
texasmonthly.com: What Texas food do you plan on writing about next?
JM: It seems like at any given time, I’m always working on a barbecue piece for somebody.