Steak

Chicken Fried Steak is A Dish for When You're Feeling Homesick

On growing up in the South—and returning.

by:
April 19, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


On long road trips through the South, I always seem to find myself at Cracker Barrel, where my order has been chicken-fried steak for as long as I can remember (they call it "country-fried steak" here, but that might be a misnomer). It’s most prominently displayed on the breakfast menu, but you can order it for dinner, too.

I suppose this is why I associate the dish with restaurant food. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of chicken-fried ("(esp. of steak) dipped in flour or batter and deep-fried, in the manner of fried chicken") was in an advertisement for a restaurant called Phelps in the Colorado Springs Gazette on June 19, 1914. “A summer dainty,” they wrote of Phelps’s chicken-fried steak.

Though I can’t imagine scarfing down a plate of breaded, deep-fried steak and mashed potatoes smothered with milk gravy in the middle of a hot June summer, I certainly long for it whenever I’m missing home.

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Top Comment:
“Eric, your chicken fried steak (gyu) katsu made me instantly homesick for my mother’s kitchen. This is how Mom would make chicken fried steak. Her version, like yours, brought together her Japanese and Dad’s Kentucky cooking traditions that made food memories few others know. Thinly shaved cabbage is traditional with katsu, as is the panko crust. Cream gravy and buttery mashed potatoes is traditional with the chicken fried steak I was introduced to in my grandmother’s Kentucky kitchen. Mom and Dad have both passed, so the Japan meets the South recipes that developed in our home are treasures my brother and I keep and share with ones we love. Yes, panko is not the “right” way to make chicken fried steak, but neither is cream gravy the “right” embellishment for gyu katsu. Both are the right way to celebrate our Asian American traditions and to find comfort in when we most want to be hugged close by our family. I now know what I am making for Easter supper tonight. I’m sharing memories with my husband over plates of gyu katsu with cream gravy. May your most cherished food memories with your family always bring you comfort when you’re physically far from home, but close in heart. ”
— Mari A.
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The exact origins of chicken-fried steak are contestable. Food historians like James McWilliams have attributed it to German immigrants who came to Texas in the mid 19th century. Legend has it that these settlers brought with them Wiener schnitzel, a breaded and fried cutlet of veal, which would later be replaced with cube steak (usually a cheaper cut of beef that's been pounded out by a meat tenderizer).

But as Robert Moss, a Southern food correspondent for Serious Eats, writes, "Such accounts draw more on romantic imagination than on historical evidence." More likely, according to Moss (and backed by the 1914 ad in the Gazette), "chicken-fried steak is a product of early-20th-century commercial kitchens in Kansas and Colorado, where it was a popular restaurant dish."

Though we may never know the dish's true genesis story, we can safely say that it certainly grew legs in Texas, home to America's cattle industry. This probably explains why Texans will forever lay claim to originating chicken-fried steak as we know it today.

But steak aside, if there’s any state that knows chicken-fried chicken, it’s Georgia.


My relationship with Georgia is a long and winding one. Classic story: gay Asian Southern Catholic boy with immigrant parents. I always felt just a little out of place, like I didn't belong. Fleeing to New York—and vowing never to return—was paramount to the slow and steady process of building up my self-worth and confidence in my 20s.

And yet, over the years I grew to realize that I can never truly detach from the sweet, inexorable grip the South has on me. Contrary to the old adage, you can go home again. Especially when your family, friends, and boyfriend all still live there.

My parents have since moved houses, but my mother keeps a bedroom just for me with all my old things. Georgia is where I fly to for Thanksgivings, Christmases, weddings, and birthdays. And funerals.

On each drive home, I stop at Cracker Barrel for a big, fat plate of gravy-smothered chicken-fried steak. There's something about eating the same thing each time like this, and making a ritual out of it, that charges a dish with decades of meaning and memory. It's food that gives me comfort, sure, but more importantly it's food that I never really eat anywhere else.

Chicken-fried steak is so carefully situated in its place that I have a hard time associating it with anything but my homecoming, which in turn means I automatically associate it with comfort.


Photo by Julia Gartland

There was a tragedy in my family last week, but I couldn't catch a flight out in time. It's hard to want to be somewhere else when that somewhere else is so far. When I heard the news, a part of me left my body for a bit and floated up.

This suspension lasted for about a week, as if an astrally projected version of myself was looking down on my earthly self. In many ways, a part of me has always been in Georgia, which means only a part of me is present here in New York. It's hard to feel whole when you're emotionally, and spiritually, displaced like that.

It makes me think back on all those years in New York when I ached most for this dish but couldn’t find an adequate version, so I'd float from restaurant to restaurant, hungry, scouring menus and asking, "Do you serve chicken-fried steak?" Hardly anyone does, by the way, except for a kitschy cowgirl-themed restaurant in the West Village, which serves a terribly cooked $19.50 chicken-fried steak with a bland, gloopy gravy. The nearest Cracker Barrel is an hour's drive away from Manhattan.

Regarding this hunger, M.F.K. Fisher probably said it best in her Alphabet for Gourmets, in a passage titled "S Is for Sad," where she describes

the mysterious appetite that often surges in us when our hearts seem about to break and our lives seem too bleakly empty. Like every other physical phenomenon, there is always good reason for this hunger if we are blunt enough to recognize it. ... The truth is that most bereaved souls crave nourishment more tangible than prayers: they want a steak. What is more, they need a steak.

For those days when you need a steak, little else is as comforting as homemade chicken-fried steak.

My chicken-fried steak recipe is pretty classic, save for the panko breading (which, for me, fries up way crispier and requires less time in the oil than the traditional flour-egg-flour situation). I’ve always felt that frying at home was never worth the mess, but when you’re cooking small-scale like this, the oil feels somehow more manageable.

I like to make a classic milk gravy with some pan drippings, essentially just a cowboy's version of a béchamel. The most important ingredient here for me is the nutmeg, that deep, earthy cure-all for homesickness, because it tastes of everything good and familiar: Christmas, pumpkin pie, milk gravy.

Alongside mashed potatoes and finely shaved cabbage, chicken-fried steak is comfort food for when you need comfort food most.

Do you make chicken-fried steak at home? How do you do it? Please share in the comments below.
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Eric Kim is a Senior Editor at Food52, where his weekly solo dining column, Table for One, runs every Friday morning. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

29 Comments

Bella95 June 10, 2019
I love the sound of this and, what better way to honour people we have loved and lost than with food that connects us to them. When my elderly aunt passed away a few years ago, her family gave us sprigs of rosemary (the symbol of rememberance) after her funeral. I always associated my aunt with extended family gatherings and generous quantities of delicious food so l knew she would be happy that l took mine home and cooked with it to honour her.
 
Sue June 10, 2019
Eric - just wanted to tell you that I adore you and your writing- so sorry for your loss - just know there are many many people who are here for you- thank you for everything

 
HalfPint April 22, 2019
@Eric, I'm sorry to hear of your loss.
 
Mari A. April 21, 2019
Eric, your chicken fried steak (gyu) katsu made me instantly homesick for my mother’s kitchen. This is how Mom would make chicken fried steak. Her version, like yours, brought together her Japanese and Dad’s Kentucky cooking traditions that made food memories few others know. Thinly shaved cabbage is traditional with katsu, as is the panko crust. Cream gravy and buttery mashed potatoes is traditional with the chicken fried steak I was introduced to in my grandmother’s Kentucky kitchen. Mom and Dad have both passed, so the Japan meets the South recipes that developed in our home are treasures my brother and I keep and share with ones we love. Yes, panko is not the “right” way to make chicken fried steak, but neither is cream gravy the “right” embellishment for gyu katsu. Both are the right way to celebrate our Asian American traditions and to find comfort in when we most want to be hugged close by our family. I now know what I am making for Easter supper tonight. I’m sharing memories with my husband over plates of gyu katsu with cream gravy. May your most cherished food memories with your family always bring you comfort when you’re physically far from home, but close in heart.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 21, 2019
Mari, thank you so much for sharing your family's story with me. You say it so well here: "Yes, panko is not the 'right' way to make chicken fried steak, but neither is cream gravy the 'right' embellishment for gyu katsu. Both are the right way to celebrate our Asian American traditions and to find comfort in when we most want to be hugged close by our family."

The shaved cabbage was inspired by the best tonkatsu I've ever had in Kyoto (wish I could remember the name of the restaurant). The cutlet came with shaved cabbage—superfine, ice-cold crisp, and barely dressed if dressed at all.
 
Mary C. April 21, 2019
May you find peace and balance soon, Eric. And thank you for sharing your words and this recipe. As an ex-pat southern gal living in Maine, recipes and writing like this resonate so much--by making me feel connected to my southern roots while making me feel less alone in my complicated, tangled feelings of the place I come from.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 21, 2019
Thanks a lot, Mary. Your comment gives me comfort this morning.

I love this moniker: "ex-pat Southern." Will be borrowing that!
 
Darcey A. April 20, 2019
Chicken fried steak is delicious. I've not eaten that in some time. It feels like comfort food and like home.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 21, 2019
It does, indeed.
 
Katie M. April 20, 2019
Eric, thank you so much for this. I'm very sorry for your family's loss, and I'm glad you've found solace in the warmth of comfort food 💖💖
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 21, 2019
Katie! <3
 
CHUCK April 20, 2019
My condolences on your loss. What an unfortunate way to judge Aunt Bettys CFS next to aunt Mary's ? We've used both round steak, gotta beat the heck out of it to tenderize it, and cube steak. Either works well , cube steak a little less work but it can be chewy also ! It's really a matter of textures on which cut you use. Cube makes the best sandwich.
Eggs,flour,garlic salt n pepper,and I know some don't like it it but a good sprinkle of MSG will enhance the flavor X10. Ok maybe not that much but try it both ways with or without. The pankow bread crumbs will burn pretty easy . Try using a can of Pet Milk for your gravy , some of the cfs crumbles an flour for your rue and thicken to preference. Regular milks good also. season to taste. Enjoy....🤓
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 21, 2019
Thanks for the tips, Chuck. Love the garlic salt/MSG idea, hah; how could that not taste delicious?
 
Rob M. April 20, 2019
Not sure where you are from, but in Texas, you probably wouldn't want to serve a CFS with only a dollop of gravey.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 21, 2019
Hi Rob, I didn't plate the steak in the beautiful photo. But for what it's worth, I'm from Georgia (so I'd have to agree with you). :)
 
Elizabeth April 20, 2019
I am so sorry to hear your sad news and I hope you find solace among friends and family at this difficult time. I do occasionally fix chicken fried steak, though not as frequently since my father passed away last year. When I do make it, I usually serve it with lots of sautéed onions and a brown gravy (I've heard that's just something sacreligious we do in SC and south Georgia) with rice and okra & tomato succotash (sp?). My favorite sad comfort food is chicken bog (perlou if you're fancy) because it's extremely simple but very filling: start with bacon grease and a trinity, boil some chicken and season with curry powder etc, use the broth to make rice and bake it together with some kielbasa (or chorizo, andouille, whatever- the recipe is as diverse as the population). It's funeral food at its best because even if the whole town brings it, it seems like you're eating a different dish every time. I certainly understand your Cracker Barrel tradition. It's one of my favorite parts of road trips! Thank you for your article!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 21, 2019
Elizabeth, thanks so much for the words. Chicken bog sounds wonderful; I've never heard of it! Do you have a recipe you use? Though I imagine it's one of those dishes that's just in your head and heart.
 
Jim April 19, 2019
Ur wrong flour is it & if ur every Strawn TX to Mary best cr in all 50 states u will always try to go back I have drove 150 miles just have lunch at Mary's not hard because it the only thing their. In middle of no where
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 19, 2019
Noted!
 
Annada R. April 19, 2019
I'm so sorry to hear about your family tragedy! May you get all the strength in the world to deal with it! The connection between comfort food and pain and loss is otherworldly. And as far as I'm concerned, when I'm in pain, more than eating comfort foods, I like to cook them for people I love.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 19, 2019
Well said, Annada.
 
Angela M. April 19, 2019
We call it Breaded Steak, and we use thin cut round steak, or regular round steak and use tenderizer on it and pound to thickness we prefer. In eggs I use dried parsley, granulated garlic, pepper, and a little salt. Beat all seasonings in eggs well. I now use Italian flavored breadcrumbs, adding parsley and granulated garlic. Dip in egg, then put in bread crumbs and use heel of my hand to pound in crumbs, both sides. Can do in fry in pan on stove with little bit of olive oil, or broil in cookie sheet after light sprinkle of olive oil over top. Family favorite.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 19, 2019
You just made me realize these could totally be baked. Gonna try that next!
 
Angela M. April 19, 2019
Since thin, keep close eye, sprinkle olive oil first. Thanks for being on here, trying a few recipes, love to cook.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 19, 2019
Thanks for the tip.
 
Carlos C. April 19, 2019
Eric, I am sorry to hear about your family tragedy. I hope your family is doing well. Finding out that you grew up Catholic adds a whole new layer of mutual understanding to our stories. There is something about growing up catholic - a shared sense of experience growing up in the "universal church" - that can be hard to explain. My mom is from Texas and adored country fried steak. You can find it at almost every diner here (along with grits) - this in spite of the the fact that South Florida is no longer considered "Southern." Like you, I only visit Cracker Barrel on a road trip. They always seem to be locate right next to the highway....and never a highway you take to get to work - always the ones used for road trips. Thanks for sharing this.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 19, 2019
Thanks, Carlos. Too true, all of it.
 
Whiteantlers April 19, 2019
Eric, I'm so sorry you had a family tragedy and I'm glad you were able to comfort yourself with a beloved dish.

I've only eaten chicken fried steak at Cracker Barrel while traveling cross country. Loved it, much to my surprise. My sister, who lived in Oklahoma and Texas for decades, used to make it often though I never had her version (and shhhh!-she's a dreadful cook!)

For some reason, it never seemed "doable" in my kitchen. You sold me with the panko. Your use of nutmeg is clever, too. As a certified aromatherapist, I can tell you that some of nutmeg's properties are anti-depressant, anti-insomnia, a pain reliever, improves brain health (gives an uptake in serotonin and dopamine-"feel goods" for the brain) and aids digestion. Time to get the Lodge skillet and the tenderizing hammer out!

Best take away for me, though, the name "summer dainty!" When the temperatures start to really climb here, that's how I am going to identify.

Thank you for another toothsome Table for One treat of an article. <3
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 19, 2019
I didn't know you were an aromatherapist! Thanks for the nutmeg tip. No wonder this makes me feel better.

p.s. You're my favorite.