It’s almost midnight and I’m standing on my porch in pajamas waiting for the Postmates guy.
If he rings the bell, the four dogs inside the house will go to DEFCON 5 barking. So, I’m strategically positioned outside, ready for the covert hand off of a bag of chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes. I can’t remember the last time I ate chicken fried steak. But I’m craving it. Badly. Which is a mystery because I don’t have a cozy memory of this dish being prepared in some nostalgic kitchen of my childhood. There’s no memory of a cast iron skillet sputtering grease, an apron dusted in flour or grandma’s hands preparing this deep-fried, binge-worthy, coronary-inducing dish that, let’s face it, isn’t even made from chicken.
Yet here I am in the darkness, under a dim porchlight, desperate for a fix. The pandemic is underway. And as it’s laying siege to my life and everyone else’s, this has become our nation’s undeniable 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 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 “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. I don’t have relationship goals, I have charcuterie board goals. I “plate” my food. You know, just for fun. So, in this moment on the porch, while I wait impatiently for the headlights in the driveway, I think about the puzzling thread that connects me to a roadside diner dish.
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 savory gravy and devour. When done right, I must admit it’s pretty spectacular.
The fact is, I’ve been surrounded by chicken fried steak my whole life but never realized it. You see, I grew up in small-town, red dirt southwest Oklahoma. And within each little town of the Great Plains, there’s unfailingly a mom-and-pop country cafe. And on each 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 our official state meal 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. It reminds me of men in John Deere trucker hats drinking coffee together in the morning. The twang of Hank Williams in the background. Jean overalls. Waitresses with a slight southern drawl. 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. Some are tangible, scrawled in familiar handwriting on recipe cards or hidden in the margins of a cookbook that somehow passed into 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. 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, the confections of cookies and cakes. And will these comfort foods of our present find new meaning for us after the pandemic? Also, what will the comfort foods of tomorrow look like for a new generation? Chick-Fil-A pizza recipes from TikTok? Quinoa bowls? Avocado toast?
But as for me, I’ll happily stick with chicken fried steak and gravy even if it means loitering on my own doorstep in the middle of the night. If you also share an inclination for my comfort food of choice, kindly help yourself to my adaptation of this southern classic.
Okie Chicken Fried Steak Recipe
Okie Chicken Fried Steak
This one pan comfort food dish comes from Oklahoma. You’ll love the crunchy steaks paired with a generous heap of smokey honey sriracha gravy. Serve with your favorite sides and warm biscuits or Texas toast.
Chicken Fried Steak Ingredients
- 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
Smokey Honey Sriracha Gravy Ingredients
- 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 tablespoon of liquid smoke
- 2 tablespoons of sriracha
- ½ teaspoon of chipotle powder
- Adjust salt for flavor
- 2 cups of buttermilk
Chicken Fried Steak Steps
- 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 250 degree oven to keep warm until ready to serve
Smokey Honey Sriracha Gravy Steps
- 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.
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