It’s almost midnight. I’m in pajamas, pacing on my front porch, impatient for the Postmates delivery guy.
If he rings the bell, four dogs behind the door will go to Defcon 5 barking. That’s why I’m outside, strategically positioned for the covert handoff of a bag of chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes.
I’m craving the deep-fried comfort of this dish. Pretty badly, I might add. Which is a mystery to me because I don’t have a cozy memory of it from childhood. There isn’t a vivid recollection of a cast iron skillet sputtering grease, an apron dusted in flour, or a sweet little MeeMaw doling out plates of this coronary-inducing food that, let’s face it, isn’t even made from chicken.
Yet here I am, looking shifty under a dim porch-light, desperate for a fix. The pandemic is underway. And as it’s laying siege to my life and everyone else’s, undeniably this has become our nation’s great comfort food-meets-crisis moment where the stomach wants what the heart remembers.
But why chicken fried steak? After all, I’m a “foodie” with all of the eye-rolling pretentiousness that word implies. I curate an Instagram feed of beautiful food I cook. I own a copy of Julia Child’s The Art of Mastering French Cooking. I don’t have relationship goals, I have charcuterie board goals. I style, “plate” and garnish my food. For fun. Even when no one else is around. So, at this moment on the porch, while I wait for headlights in the driveway, I think about the puzzling thread that connects me to a common, not especially gourmet, roadside diner dish.
I don’t have relationship goals, I have charcuterie board goals. I style, “plate” and garnish my food. For fun. Even when no one else is around.
At its essence, chicken fried steak is basically a cheap cut of beef dressed up like fried chicken. It’s cube steak ready for Sunday church, freshly baptized in lard and flour. If it’s not prepared well, it can be tough, over-salted, greasy. Not exactly a culinary delight. But in expert hands, its golden crust is light, delicate with a crunch, and the meat is tender perfection. The only way to improve it after that is to ladle on generous amounts of gravy and devour. When done right, I have to admit it’s pretty spectacular.
The fact is, I’ve been surrounded by chicken fried steak my whole life and never realized it. You see, I grew up in a small town in red dirt, southwest Oklahoma. And within each little town of the Great Plains, unfailingly, you will find a mom-and-pop country cafe. And on each cheaply laminated cafe menu, there is always, always chicken fried steak. A feast served smothered in gravy with mashed potatoes, fried okra or green beans. But it’s not complete without a homemade biscuit or, if you’re lucky, a big buttered piece of Texas toast to help sop up that delicious gravy. And yes, sop, is a verb where I grew up.
Chicken fried steak is not just a food staple of southern tradition, it’s a staple of small-town America. Folks on this side of the Red River love it so much, we made it one of our official state meals in 1988.
And I think that’s why I secretly love chicken fried steak. So secretly that even I didn’t realize until the pandemic struck how much this dish soothes my panicked soul. It’s because of what it represents — my hometown, community, a childhood of random moments spent in little cafes and diners. It reminds me of salty old-timers in John Deere trucker hats. The kind of men who wore jean overalls like a uniform as they flocked in groups over morning coffee in the time-honored tradition of shootin’ the shit. It’s the twang of Hank Williams’s guitar in the background. Or a waitress with an old-fashioned order pad, a big grin, and a southern drawl who asks, “Honey, what can I get you?”
Frankly, it’s the embodiment of my childhood experience growing up in a small Oklahoma town, distilled into one gravy-soaked dish.
I guess it means that for me, the comfort of chicken fried steak during the pandemic is about going home again.
Comfort food is like that. It punctuates life’s moments, big and small. It’s love that lives in a compendium of dishes from childhood onward.
Comfort food is like that. It punctuates life’s moments, big and small. It’s love that lives in a compendium of dishes from childhood onward. Some are tangible, scrawled in familiar handwriting on recipe cards, or hidden in the margins of a cookbook that somehow passed to our hands. Others are magical combinations of smells and tastes that bring us back to a place or a person we loved. And still others, like my chicken fried steak, exist somewhere on the periphery of nostalgia.
But all great comfort foods do their job well. They reassure us, fill us and satisfy us.
So, I can’t help but find myself wondering if we’re going to look back at this age of panic and remember not only the anxiety but also the homemade loaves of warm bread, the bowls of creamy macaroni and cheese, the hearty soups, and the confections of cookies and cakes.
How will the comfort foods of our present find new meaning for us after the pandemic? And what will the comfort foods of tomorrow look like for a new generation? Chick-Fil-A pizza recipes from TikTok? Quinoa bowls? Avocado toast?
I’ll stick with chicken fried steak and gravy, even if it means loitering on a doorstep in the middle of the night. And if, perhaps, you share an inclination for my comfort food of choice, kindly help yourself to my adaptation of this southern classic which is served on homemade fry bread instead of toast or biscuits.
- **Chicken Fried Steak:
- 1 package of cube steak or round steak
- 2 teaspoons of kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons of fresh ground pepper
- ½ teaspoon of paprika
- ½ teaspoon of garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon of onion powder
- ½ teaspoon of cornstarch
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup of flour
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 3 eggs
- 2 tablespoons of buttermilk
- **Smoky Honey Sriracha Gravy:
- 1 cup of chicken stock (to deglaze)
- 3 tablespoons of flour
- ¼ cup of grease from frying
- 1 teaspoon of pepper
- 2 tablespoons of honey or maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon of liquid smoke
- 2 tablespoons of sriracha
- ½ teaspoon of chipotle powder
- 2 cups of buttermilk
- **Small Batch Fry Bread:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¾ to 1 cup of warm water
- 3 to 4 tablespoon of oil or lard
Chicken Fried Steak
Double tenderize your meat and soak in buttermilk for a ½ hour. Then, pat dry.
Mix your flour and dry spices together well and leave in a shallow pan.
Whisk eggs and buttermilk in a separate pan.
Double dredge your steaks in flour and a mixture of eggs.
Let steaks sit for 20 minutes.
Add vegetable oil to a deep pan that has been heated. Fry until golden brown and crispy on both sides.
Remove to wire rack and pan. Place in oven to keep warm until ready to serve.
Smoky Honey Sriracha Gravy
Remove excess grease from the same pan you cooked the chicken fried steaks but leave the meaty bits and the bits at the bottom of the pan (this is called fond. It’s the foundation of the rue for your gravy).
Deglaze pan with a little chicken stock.
Heat your pan and whisk flour and grease to make a golden rue (About 3 to 4 minutes).
Slowly add 2 cups of buttermilk and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly until it thickens.
Add honey, liquid smoke, and sriracha.
Mix well, serve over hot chicken fried steaks.
Combine dry ingredients. Slowly add warm water until the dough is formed. Add more flour as needed. Let rest for 15 to 30 minutes. Form balls and pat into disks by hand. Fry in hot oil on each side until golden brown.
Note: Edited from the original version published spring of 2020.