I once drove from Indio, Cali.f, to Fayetteville, Ark., eating chicken fried steak at every possible location the whole 1,470 miles across the Southwest. My goal was obvious: Where could I find the best chicken fried steak along that famous route, one favored by the Okies of the Dust Bowl era, including some Arkies in the bunch, mostly on my mother's side?
Chicken fried steak is a traditional dish appearing in many cultures, but under that particular name goes back only to the 1930s or so. It is yet another wonderful example of Poor People Food, or the dusty-roadside-diner equivalent. A cut of cheap steak, brutally pounded into tender submission, then coated in egg wash and seasoned flour.
Restaurants often call the deep-fried version "chicken fried" and the pan-fried type "country fried," but it isn't worth sweating over. Both are beyond good.
The typical side dishes are mashed potatoes, a vegetable and a biscuit, and the whole thing is smothered in pepper-seasoned white gravy.
The two best places I located to eat chicken fried steak were (a) one of those big mega-truck stops in Barstow, Calif., and (b) a little diner on the side of the road way out in the middle of the Texas panhandle. I'm not even sure there was a town there. (It could've been Shamrock.) The only other thing within sight was a big grain silo across the highway.
The origins of chicken fried steak seem to lead inevitably back to Texas, actually. Texas is a state of mind that's grown on me over the years.
Here is a typical recipe for chicken fried steak:
4 tenderized cutlets of cube steak
1/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
Beat together the egg and milk and set aside. Mix together the salt, black pepper, paprika, white pepper and flour.
Dip each cutlet in the egg/milk mixture, then into the flour. Set the meat aside.
Heat the cooking oil in a deep skillet. Half an inch of oil. They say the best way to cook bacon is naked, so you know when you've got the oil too hot. Same idea here, but I don't recommend it really. Oi.
Put the cutlets in the hot oil without burning the heck out of yourself. Fry them on both sides, turning until they're golden brown. Cut the heat, cover them up, and let them simmer awhile.
Once the cutlets are done, remove them and reduce the heat.
Okay, here's my mom's recipe for white gravy: Start sprinkling flour from the chicken fried steak recipe into the hot oil. Stir it quickly to brown the flour. You will know when you've put in enough flour; it just won't soak up any more oil.
Do everything gradually with the gravy. Gradually stir in the milk, stirring constantly to keep it smooth and avoid lumps. If it starts to bubble, cut the heat some. Keep on stirring until it starts to thicken. You can spice to taste, just don't dump too much of anything in all at once. You can't take it back out. Salt and pepper are really all you need here.
(You make white sausage gravy the same way, except you cook up a big thing of breakfast sausage first, get it all cooked down, then add the flour and etc. on up from there.)