Q: I realize the food section isn’t your department, but perhaps you can provide me with some answers. Your magazine’s recent “Feast Around the World” cover story [November 2018] brought me to quit biting my tongue and finally ask why barbecue is considered the official state dish instead of chicken-fried steak.
Steve McHugh, one of the chefs featured in that story, comes pretty close to nailing good old Texas eats, although I highly recommend that his grapefruit–chile pequin jelly not be served to children, family pets, or maiden aunts. His roast duck is reminiscent of my mother’s roast duck. We shot our ducks at night while they slept in the rice paddies. (Yes, I know. Not sporting, not legal. I was a grown woman before I knew it was against the law to hunt at night and that there was this thing called deer season.) My mother may have brined her duck overnight in salt water, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same.
Mr. McHugh’s recipe for pecan-cornbread dressing is the same recipe I’ve used for years. It was given to me by an Iranian chef. I asked him where he learned to make it and was told it was his grandmother’s recipe. When I looked at him with raised eyebrows, he haughtily said, “What? You don’t think we have turkeys in Iran?”
I’ve strayed from my question about chicken-fried steak.
Back in the day, CFS was made from REAL round steak, with the bone in. A testament to a good cook was the tenderness of the CFS, which was achieved by beating it to death. Back then, you could get CFS in any town that had a cattle auction barn. Groesbeck and Pilot Point were known statewide for the quality of their CFS. There was a little gas station, grocery shop, and cafe midway between Waco and Mexia, on Highway 84, where it was said that there should have been a traffic light that operated only during the lunch run. So far as I know, that place held the title of best CFS in Texas.
Like any barbecue aficionado, CFS fans will drive two hundred miles for the good stuff.
Also, FYI, chicken-fried steak is always served with rich cream gravy. One entrepreneur who opened a cafe in Aubrey tried serving a yellow chicken-base gravy that had green specks. This did not go over well with the locals. The long and short of that venture, although the CFS was excellent, was that his refusal to serve it with cream gravy led to the fellow’s parole being revoked. But that’s another story.
So why isn’t chicken-fried steak the official state dish of Texas?
Lillian Williams, Sherman
A: Thanks for the long and lively letter, Ms. Williams. You are correct that the food department is not the Texanist’s professional domain. But he has for several years now officed directly across the hall from Patricia Sharpe, Texas Monthly’s long-serving and highly esteemed food doyenne. Plus, as anyone who knows him can easily attest, the Texanist does enjoy strapping on the feed bag from time to time—especially one that includes tasty chicken-fried steak—and he’s more than happy to do what he can for you.
Let’s begin, shall we?
The “Feast Around the World” feature—which included recipes for five different holiday dinners from five different Texas chefs—really was a good one, wasn’t it? And, like you, the Texanist was particularly taken with the meal concocted by McHugh, of San Antonio’s Cured restaurant.
And that’s despite the fact that the Texanist isn’t really big fan of duck, which probably has something to do with the fact that his mom, unlike yours, never made duck. It may also have something to do with the fact that when a friend of the Texanist once accidentally shot a mud hen with a .22 pistol, the Texanist helped him try to make right of his regretful wrong (it wasn’t even close to mud hen season) by hastily flame-cooking and then attempting to eat the ill-gotten and underdone coot. That was a long time ago, but the Texanist still counts himself lucky to have survived the fiasco.
That said, the Texanist’s mom did make a heck of a dressing, the memory of which still fuels his judgment of every dressing he has sampled ever since, none of which lived up to the standard of that glorious side dish, which, like Mr. McHugh’s, was of the cornbread-based variety but was a little toastier and crumblier than most such dressings. If recollection serves, the recipe, like the Iranian gentleman’s, may also have been handed down from a grandmother, although she was not Iranian.
Hey, do you know the difference between dressing and stuffing? Of course you do. What was the Texanist thinking?
Speaking of thoughts, the Texanist’s must have been elsewhere because he has strayed from the eventual point of your letter, which, if he recalls, was why barbecue, rather than chicken-fried steak, is the state dish of Texas. Your detailed reminiscences of CFS reminded the Texanist that back during his college days in Austin he used to hit this little greasy spoon called 2 J Hamburgers that, in addition to its namesake hamburgers, also served CFS. The Texanist doesn’t recall if the CFS was any good, but he does remember that it was very affordable and that on Tuesdays, if memory serves, it was twice as affordable due to a two-for-one deal. The Texanist ate a lot of those 2 J chicken-fried steaks.
Right around the same time, the Texanist used to hit a place called Beans Restaurant and Bar, which was in an old one-story building downtown that now houses a Japanese restaurant. They had a great CFS and a twofer special, which ran on Wednesdays. Beans used to advertise “the best chicken-fried steak in Texas.” The Texanist wonders who would prevail in a head-to-head battle for the title of Best CFS in Texas between Beans and the little joint near Mexia and Waco that you mention. Either way, you’re absolutely right about cream gravy—and the richer and more peppery, the better.
The Texanist doesn’t recall what he ate the rest of the week during those halcyon days, but after the one-two punch of the four-for-two Tuesday-Wednesday CFS combo, it’s quite possible he didn’t eat anything at all. (Drinking, on the other hand . . .)
Agh, the Texanist has strayed again! That’s because, to be perfectly honest, he has been avoiding an uncomfortable task: namely, informing you that, contrary to what you believe to be the case, barbecue is not, in fact, our state dish. Chili received that distinguished honor way back in 1977 from the Texas legislature. How did this happen, you may wonder? (Well, not “may wonder”—did wonder; such wondering was, the Texanist thinks, the central point of your charmingly circuitous letter.) Simply (and concisely) put, four decades ago the state’s chili lobby whipped up what was reportedly the world’s biggest pot of chili and fed it to a bunch of legislators, along with 24 cases of Pearl Beer—enough to get a majority of Texas lawmakers to vote in favor of House Simple Resolution 18, which declared that “one cannot be a true son or daughter of this state without having his taste buds tingle at the thought of the treat that is real, honest-to-goodness, pure, unadulterated Texas chili.” The relative torpor of the (perhaps nonexistent) barbecue and chicken-fried steak lobbies led to a state of affairs that some—though not all—Texans, including yourself, regard as a “culinary bummer,” to quote Guy Clark.
That said, the Texanist is not unsympathetic to your complaint, and hopes you take comfort in his strong belief that both barbecue and CFS, as any Texan worth their salt (and pepper) would surely agree, make great contenders for the title of “Unofficial State Dish of Texas.”
Thanks again for such a hearty meal of a letter, Mrs. Williams. Bon appétit to you.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.