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CHICKEN-FRIED STEAK

Ask any Oklahoman to name a favorite food entree and the overwhelming response will be chicken fried steak (CFS). Many go so far as to say that when evaluating a restaurant/café they try the chicken-fried steak, and if it passes muster, they move on to sample other menu items. But if the CFS is not up to par, they remove the establishment from their dining list. This love affair with CFS runs so deep in Oklahoma that in 1988 the state legislature placed the dish on the official Oklahoma State Meal list.

Every town in Oklahoma has an eating establishment that the locals swear serves the best CFS in the country. Some are good and some are not, but they all prepare the dish in the same basic way. A piece of round steak, cut thin, is tenderized by pounding it with something (for example, a hammer-like tenderizer, a soft-drink bottle, the edge of a saucer) or by running it through an electric tenderizer. Next, the meat is battered by dipping it into a milk-and-egg mixture and then dredging it through a combination of flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper before frying it in oil in a skillet over medium heat until the crust is crisp and golden brown. After the steak is removed, most of the grease is poured out of the pan, leaving the little "crispies" from the crust. Flour, milk, salt, and pepper are added to this residue and stirred until a whitish or brownish gravy is produced. The dish is served with the gravy on the steak or on the side, along with mashed potatoes and another vegetable. Of course, there are scores of variations on this process, such as double battering the meat, varying the cut of the steak, or changing the seasoning mixtures, but the process remains essentially the same.

Chicken-fried steak is the classic example of an inexpensive regional folk food utilized by working-class folk and generally categorized as comfort food. Its exact origins are impossible to determine, but it became popular in the late-nineteenth-century beef-growing areas of western Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, and possibly further north into Kansas. One of the earliest mentions of a similar food is a recipe for veal cutlets in a cook book entitled The Virginia Housewife, published in 1838 by Mrs. Mary Randolph. By the late nineteenth century numerous regional cook books provided the recipe. At that time the delicacy was usually called pan-fried steak or country-fried steak, or some similar designation, and it was very similar to the fried pork cutlets so popular in the South, where the swine industry was much more important than beef production. Chicken-fried steak is almost identical to German schnitzel and is similar to Scottish collops, and it is very possible that ethnic settlements of these people, particularly the Germans of the Hill Country of Texas, were instrumental in developing CFS as a use for cheap, tough cuts of beef. Numerous cookbooks, including an 1880s volume from Boerne, Texas, provide the recipe, always referring to it as pan-fried steak or some variation of that name. As late as 1930 The Bride's Cook Book of Oklahoma City offered the recipe as breaded steak. Where and when the term "chicken-fried steak" began remains a mystery, but most authorities agree that it probably developed in the 1930s, and by the time of World War II it had become the generally accepted term for Oklahoma's favorite dish.

SEE ALSO: BARBECUE, CHILI, FOLKLIFE, FOODWAYS, STATE MEAL.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 28 October 1984, 29 July 1991, 1 September 1999, and 20 July 2001. Nick Foltz, "Chicken Fried Steak Number One in Oklahoma," Tulsa (Oklahoma) World, 23 June 1988. Muskogee (Oklahoma) Cimeter, 29 January 1909. Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (Baltimore: Plaskitt and Cugle, 1838). Linda Kennedy Rosser, Pioneer Cookery Around Oklahoma (Oklahoma City, Okla.: n. p., 1978). Jane Stern and Michael Stern, Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A. (New York: Broadway Books, 1999). Katheryn Jenson White, "Heaven on the Blue Plate Special: Chicken Fry," Oklahoma Today 35 (September-October 1985).

Bobby D. Weaver

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