Origins of a Texas Favorite

The origins of chicken-fried steak are shrouded in mystery thicker than the gravy that goes with it.

The earliest reference I can find using (almost) that exact term is an advertisement for the Baylor Avenue Dining Hall in Breckenridge (Stephens County) that ran in the local paper on November 17, 1920. Obviously, the dish was being enjoyed long before that.

Most culinary historians trace the origin of our plate-eclipsing marvel to the Germans who came to Texas in the nineteenth century and brought with them recipes for Wiener Schnitzel. This dish consists of pounded veal coated with breadcrumbs and fried. (It has nothing to do with the Wienerschnitzel hot-dog joints.)

Recipes for what we would all recognize as chicken fried steak were included in many southern cookbooks after the Civil War.

If you think about it, the chicken fried steak was almost inevitable in Texas. Even the best of cuts from those old longhorns required a really good set of teeth to enjoy. What was a cook to do with the tougher cuts? Pounding the hell out of them is a very Texan thing to do.

There are regional variations, even within Texas. The East Texas version is dipped in egg and then flour, similar to the way fried chicken is prepared.

Central Texas uses bread crumbs rather than flour, showing its Wiener Schnitzel roots. Out West there is a version made without dipping the meat in egg, which likely had its origin which chuckwagon cooks on cattle drives. Just who coined the term, ‘chicken fried’ remains a mystery…for now.

A Rant
When discussing things Texan, one of my younger friends is bound to mention sweet tea. This is a sure way to set me off. I think they do it on purpose.

I tell them that sweet tea is a Johnny-come-lately immigrant from the Old South. I had spent my entire life in Texas and never heard of such a thing until I was in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics. Maybe that’s how the migration began.

I still remember the first time I realized the stuff had made it’s way to Texas. It was about 2000.

I asked the waitress for iced tea. She asked if I wanted sweet or unsweet. I looked at her like she asked if I wanted to try the bat soup.

In my rant I always mention that in the true spirit of individualism, it was assumed that if a Texan wanted his or her tea sweetened, they were up to the task.

That’s why your iced tea would appear at the table with a long-handled spoon. It was called, get this, an iced tea spoon, and we knew how to use it.

The folks in Sugar Land knew the deal. That’s why Imperial advertised its pure-cane sugar as “quick dissolving.”

Want even better evidence? OK. Here’s the number of times the phrase “sweet tea” appears over the decades in the massive scanned archives of Texas newspapers that the University of North Texas makes available.

The difference is actually even larger than it appears, because so few papers of the last two decades have been scanned compared to those of earlier times.

The prosecution rests.

There’s nothing wrong with liking sweet tea if that’s your thing, just don’t call it a Texas tradition, because it isn’t.

There is, however, something I think we can all agree is an abomination.
​​​​​​​Back in 1997 I spent a couple months working in Toronto. After about thirty days I was pretty homesick. Driving down the highway I saw a neon Texas flag and the letters B, B, and Q. I hit the brakes and pulled in.

I sat down in the booth and a nice waitress asked what I wanted to drink.

“Do you have iced tea?”

“Sure do.”

“That’s what I want.”

A minute later she brought me a can of Lipton Brisk Tea and a straw.

I almost cried.

Categories: Texas Culture, Texas Food

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