An abbreviated history of chicken fried steak

I’m a Southerner through and through, which means that most of my favorite foods are indeed fried. Fried okra, crispy, salty and fresh from hot grease. Smothered pork chops that began dredged through flour with specks of black pepper and seasoned salt, then dipped in buttermilk making for a crunchy coating. And my lesser talked about favorite: chicken fried steak.

I never tried my hand at chicken fried steak until recently as an adult. Before, the versions of it I’d had were of the frozen entree variety: Marie Callender’s, Stouffer’s, Lean Cuisine.

I loved it because it reminded me of smothered pork chops: a pillowy mound of mashed potatoes and some sort of gravy, maybe some buttery yellow corn, cornbread, and green beans. It wasn’t a standard meal in the states of Georgia and Alabama, where my roots are, but every now and then, it could be had.

That’s because, as I recently learned after traveling to the state of Oklahoma, there are certain states in our country that lay claim to the origins of a dish that’s still hungrily and endearingly enjoyed today.

A short history of a beloved dish

Which region can lay claim to the origins of chicken fried steak?Which region can lay claim to the origins of chicken fried steak? — Photo courtesy of iStock / bhofack2

Making chicken fried steak is as simple as remembering the integral component embedded in its name: frying. And frying like you would chicken legs, wings, breasts or thighs.

The idea is to transform cheap cuts of beef, typically thin slices of ground round with small indentations across the surface, into something tastier that hides the toughness and lack of flavor. Growing up in Georgia, cellophane-covered Styrofoam containers of cubed steak, found in the meat section of any grocer, would fit the bill.

From there, it’s alternating between dipping the meat in flour and swishing around the egg wash with a few splashes of full-fat buttermilk. Then, frying until golden brown on each side, preferably in a well-worn and well-seasoned cast iron skillet.

As a last step, ladle gravy over the crispy, crunchy, breaded and now-fried beef. Either brown gravy or white peppercorn will do, depending on the cook’s preference. And always pair it with mashed potatoes. It’s an unofficial, always expected, rule.

According to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture, the true origins of this dish are unknown to most, although there are theories aplenty. One is that the first mentions of a similar recipe to what we know today as chicken fried steak was within The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook from the 1800s.

The cookbook mentioned a process of battering and frying thin veal cutlets, another tough, yet cheap cut of meat. Oklahoma’s claim to fame? Chicken fried steak was named one of the state dishes in 1988 by the 41st legislature.

But others, namely Texans, are certain the roots lie within The Lone Star State.

A Southern or Midwestern culinary treasure?

Here’s where the chicken fried steak saga gets a little contentious: Texas, Louisiana and even small portions of Kansas in some way attribute chicken fried steak as a part of their local and regional cultural culinary lexicon. The Texas State Historical Association suggests that chicken fried steak began in Texas, in large part to Germans who immigrated and settled throughout the state. The German schnitzel is apparently a comparable derivative.

Other than the mention of a similar recipe in the The Virginia Housewife in the 1800s, there’s note of a chicken fried steak recipe printed in both the Winnipeg Free Press and the Household Searchlight Recipe Book later in mid 1900s.

Perhaps adding more clout to the Texas genesis theory, depending on which Texan you ask about chicken fried steak, you might get different answers into how it’s made. East, central and West Texas all have their own renditions. As do restaurants within Oklahoma.

Oklahoma restaurant renditions to savor

Chicken fried steak is the glory of Dilly Dinner in Tulsa, and is one of the city's renowned dishesChicken fried steak is the glory of Dilly Dinner in Tulsa, and is one of the city’s renowned dishes — Photo courtesy of Dilly Diner

The answer of who makes the best chicken fried steak in Oklahoma is a mighty subjective question. But there have been a few establishments who have gained rousing reputations for their chicken fried steak.

In Tulsa, Dilly Dinner, a comfort food haven located in the Blue Dome District of the city, makes a chicken fried steak that’s one of the top five most ordered items on their menu. It comes with veggies, mashed potatoes and the standard black pepper gravy.

“It’s usually almost too big to fit on a plate. Which I think is a staple for a chicken fried steak,” said one of Dilly’s managers, Grant Maxey.

A little over 100 miles away in Oklahoma City, Ann’s Chicken Fry House, a restaurant that takes you back to the past with retro-style decor, is routinely dubbed as an ‘it’ place to get chicken fried steak.

Though the history is a muddled web and the opinions vary about who does it best, chicken fried steak remains a significant staple dish in Oklahoma. With all the crunchy, breaded and gravy goodness piled on a plate for comfort, how can you lose?