Chicken Fried Steak: The History of the Heart of Southern Cooking

Growing up, my family had a tradition of celebrating personal accomplishments by letting the person pick what meal we would have for dinner.  For my dad, he usually picked steak and applesauce cake as a dessert.  My sisters, as picky eaters as they are, would pick a dish we called “concoction”, which was just peas, hamburger meat, bacon, and hashbrowns in a stir fry.  Being a kid who very religiously grew up on chicken fingers and fries, one could pretty easily guess what I would have picked, but as I grew up and my taste began to diversify, I would begin picking a dish that now reminds me of high school graduation, winning homecoming king, and securing my first ever lead role in the school play: chicken fried steak.  

The practice of frying meat has been in practice since 2500 BC when Egyptians began cooking their meat in oil.  They found that with this process, their food would cook faster than cooking it in water due to the heightened temperatures that oil could reach as opposed to water.  Since then, empires such as the Romans and the Byzantines would continue the practice of cooking their meat in oil.  During the Renaissance period, frying began to see more popularity among the upper classes due to the abundance of animal fats that they had access to to fry with.  European aristocrats used to decorate their foods with golden leaves for health benefits, but mainly as a symbol of wealth and power amongst their community.  This practice got out and began to spread amongst the general population of Europe until the garnish was banned at the Council of Venice.  Searching for ways to continue showcasing their wealth, the aristocrats turned to frying food, which would give their food a crispy gold covering that could be used to symbolize their power and prowess over the common man.

As this practice of frying meat in oil spread throughout Europe and began to exist at a more attainable level for all classes, the recipe found its way to Germany in the late nineteenth century.  Field General Marshal Radetzky discovered a dish called milanese (a fried veal cutlet originating from their station spot in Milan) that he found so tasteful, he sent the recipe back to the Austrian Empire to have it made more frequently.  After making some slight changes to the recipe, the dish got the name “schnitzel”, which is the German word for “cutlet”.  The schnitzel gained popularity in German and Austria due to the simplicity that came with making this tasty dish as well as the speed in which it was able to be cooked.  This dish became known as Wienerschnitzel, or “schnitzel in the Viennese style” and distinguished itself from other iterations of the schnitzel with using breadcrumbs from the Kaiseremmel (more commonly known as the Kaiser roll) and being protected by German and Austrian law as only including veal as the meat.  This dish also became a very central part of the Jewish culture in the early twentieth century.  Immigrants from Germany and Austria to Palestine and Israel introduced the schnitzel into Jewish culture as part of their sacred meals due to its simple cooking process that would easily allow it to be prepared the day before in a cheap and quick fashion.  With lack of veal available, the meat was replaced by chicken and turkey breast to keep the dish kosher and would be breaded with matzah during Passover.  The schnitzel has remained a key portion of both the Jewish and Germanic cultures and serves as a very enjoyable and traditional dish.

During the 1800s, Germans began immigrating to Texas with the promise of new social and economic opportunities as well as the enticing grants Stephen F. Austin to settle in their new territory.  Naturally, the Germans brought plenty of their culture overseas with them and the schnitzel became an instant hit in Texas and would soon take over the South as well as the Midwest as a classic of Southern cooking.  Since veal was not as common of a delicacy in the New World, the meat used for schnitzel became primarily beef due to the large number of cows available at an extremely low price.  Due to the accessibility of resources and ease of making, this recipe spread like wildfire and soon became popular enough to become the official food of Oklahoma. The dish became commonly known as “chicken fried steak”, because the process was essentially taking a steak and preparing it like how one would make fried chicken, but as the Texas Tale goes, a line cook from lamensa, Texas by the name of Jimmy Don Perkins accidentally read an order of “chicken, fried steak” incorrectly and prepared a single dish as a steak fried like a chicken and the rest was history.  With the invention of the television, even the simple recipe of the chicken fried steak needed to be simplified even further for the American public as television dinners became popularized by the Swanson brothers and chicken fried steak got the frozen meal treatment to enjoy a Southern classic even more on the go than the recipe allows.  The idea of chicken frying got an even worse rep as Texans began experimenting with frying nearly anything they could get their hands on and, as one Elliot Chaze would infer in a Life Magazine article, ruin good cuisine with lazy prep and ruining a dish by trying to replicate those methods with other foods.  Nevertheless, the chicken fried steak has continued to remain a staple of Southern cooking and solidified itself as a meal that can never really get old.

One of the earliest recipes of a dish that could be considered the earliest form of chicken fried steak was found in The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cookbook: A Facsimile of an Early Authentic American Cookbook by Mary Randolph where she describes how to properly prepare veal cutlets.  She says to cut a filet of veal and cover both sides of the meat with an egg wash along with a bread mix of bread crumbs, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and chopped parsley.  After frying the cutlets in boiling lard, she says to season them with curry powder, wine, and pickled lemons with gravy.  This provides the foundation of what the modern day chicken fried steak recipe would be and a pretty accurate representation of the wienerschnitzel recipe that preceded it from Germany.  Veal was used as the primary meat source because the meat is more tender and Europe was the leading provider of veal.  ¼ cups of flour is used as a mixture with kosher salt to mix with the oil and fat used for frying in order to achieve the color and flavor that comes with frying meat.  Beaten eggs act as a coating for the breadcrumbs that are layered on top of the wash to achieve crispiness for the meat after frying in oil, which was mostly lard when it was originally cooked in Germany.  The main difference between these schnitzel recipes and modern chicken fried steak recipes is that milk is added to the egg wash to make the fry more shiny and come out much crispier and more combinations of spices may be added to the coating and frying to enhance the taste and add a personal touch.

I would never call myself a chef by any means, but I did attempt to recreate the family recipe of chicken fried steak.  According to my mom, you take flattened beef steaks and put them into a mixture of one cup of flour with salt, pepper, and paprika, then into an egg wash of two eggs and whole milk, then back into the flour mixture before throwing them on a pan with vegetable oil.  The recipe then calls to flip the steaks over as the golden crust forms on each side.  This is how the steak ended up; it actually tasted very good and the meat was well cooked, but the steak ended up not being beaten flat enough so it ended up being more of a legitimate fried steak as opposed to a schnitzel.  The crust ended up falling off because the meat was so thick, but the crust was very tasty and crunchy much like most of the traditional schnitzel and chicken fried steak recipes called for.  I wanted to compare this meal to what a microwave chicken fried steak would taste like, so I heated one up and gave it a taste.  The recipe was quite simple, throw it in the microwave for four minutes and allow it to cool.  When I pulled it out, it looked significantly less appetizing than the original recipe and when I tasted it…I came to the same conclusion.  There was no crunch and the crust was actually quite soggy while the meat was very easy to tear through in a disgusting way.  It is quite insane to me how much of the culinary goodness has been sacrificed in the market of television dinners for the sake of ease and accessibility.

Chaze, Elliott. LIFE Magazine. Vol. 52, No. 15, Time Inc., 1962, p. 21.

“Foods of Israel: Schnitzel – The Forward.” The Forward, https://www.facebook.com/jewishdailyforward, 26 Oct. 2010, https://forward.com/food/132482/foods-of-israel-schnitzel/#:~:text=Though%2C%20largely%20unacknowledged%20by%20American%20Jews%2C%20schnitzel%20%E2%80%93,Gil%20Marks%20in%20the%20%E2%80%9CEncyclopedia%20of%20Jewish%20Food.%E2%80%9D.

“History of Frying. How the Italian Mixed Fry Was Born – Gambero Rosso International.” Gambero Rosso International, 28 Apr. 2021, https://www.gamberorossointernational.com/news/history-of-fried-food-amid-myth-and-legend/.

Randolph, Mary. The Virginia Housewife, Or, Methodical Cook. Courier Corporation, 1993, pp. 34–35.

“Schnitzel.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/schnitzel. Accessed 11 Dec. 2022.

Simek, Peter. “How German Immigrants Shaped Texas | Texas Heritage for Living.” Texas Heritage for Living, https://www.facebook.com/texasfarmbureauinsurance/, 1 Oct. 2020, https://texasheritageforliving.com/texas-living/how-german-immigrants-shaped-texas/#:~:text=Germans%20came%20to%20Texas%20for%20many%20reasons.%20Some,were%20hoping%20to%20decrease%20large%2C%20rural%20peasant%20populations.

“The Origin Story of Schnitzel – HOLY SCHNITZEL | #1 Franchised Kosher Restaurant.” HOLY SCHNITZEL | #1 Franchised Kosher Restaurant, 7 July 2020, https://holyschnitzel.com/the-origin-story-of-schnitzel/.

Trimarchi, Maria. “History of TV Dinners | HowStuffWorks.” HowStuffWorks, HowStuffWorks, 20 July 2009, https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/menus/history-tv-dinner.htm#:~:text=The%20original%20TV%20dinner%20was%20created%20and%20marketed,TV%20dinner%20but%20Clarence%20Birdseye%20invented%20frozen%20meals.“What Is Frying? | History of Frying | Ways of Frying | List of Fried Foods | Fried Food Recipe | Pros of Eating Fried Foods – Food’n Workout.” Food’n Workout – Find The Best Food | Weekly Workout Schedule | Stay Healthy And Fit, https://www.foodnworkout.com/post/what-is-frying/#:~:text=History%20of%20Frying%20Who%20Dropped%20The%20Food%20In,frying%20was%20evolved%20by%20Egyptians%20in%202500%20B.C. Accessed 11 Dec. 2022.

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