Food Memories: Chicken-Fried Steak and the Lone Star State

Staci Strauss

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Recently we visited my hometown of Dallas, Texas to visit family and celebrate my parents’ wedding anniversary and it brought back some good food memories. I decided it would be fun to resurrect a tradition my Grandma Sally began many, many years ago–every year on their special day, she would make a true southern comfort meal for a small group of Mom and Dad’s friends. Mom would set the fancy dishes and I think they would dress up, but they would eat a down home meal.

This all started in the 70’s and 80’s, when a slew of social engagements attended by my folks and their friends, charity balls, business dinners, and assorted other fetes led my dad to coin the term “debutante food”.

He’d say, “I don’t want any #%$*@* debutante food tonight, I want real food!” These were the heady days when the food establishment was establishing itself, when baby lettuces became de rigeur, when the uber-fashionable Mansion on Turtle Creek opened (owned an operated by New York’s 21 Club in those early days), and the menu contained more adjectives than nouns. It was when raw fish became a key ingredient and it was hard to find a salad without candied walnuts. Those days of wild experimentation left Dad cold. Don’t get me wrong, he is a very well-traveled, sophisticated eater. He taught me to eat raw milk cheeses from France, and I remember our battles when I was a pre-teen and would try and refuse his offers of what I considered disgusting food. One incident stays with me–he insisted one Sunday that I try some whipped chicken liver mousse thing, something that to my 12 year-old nose was really gross. I fought him to the point where he threatened grounding me from the phone (the horror!). As I reluctantly put this brown goop in my mouth, I realized I just couldn’t do it. I spit it in the trash. I didn’t get grounded. He always said, “You don’t have to like it, you just have to try it.”

But he hated debutante food in those days, so this made their yearly “Chicken-Fry” seriously anticipated. Let me run through the menu for this traditional Texas-style southern fare.

Chicken-fried Steak with Cream Gravy

Mashed Potatoes

Black-Eyed Peas

Collard Greens

Corn Bread Sticks with Butter

Chocolate Cream Pie

Sometimes fancy, sought after, foam–laden fare just doesn’t do the trick. Sometimes you just want something that makes you feel like home.

The steak was actually sliced and pounded beef tender, dredged in yellow mustard and a flour/cornmeal combo. Mom and Dad have a commercial deep-fryer in their kitchen (don’t ask!), so the thin, tender crispy steaks were perfection. We mashed the potatoes with plenty of raw milk and raw butter, and a little sea salt. The cream gravy, not too thin, not too thick, covered the steak and potatoes like a comfy crochet blanket.

Mom has a wonderful source for black-eyed peas, she gets them fresh at the farmers’ market. She is an expert at getting the perfect consistency as she slowly simmered the peas in chicken stock (we added a few chunks of good ham for seasoning). I wish we could get these delicate fresh peas in the Hudson Valley–calling all farm friends! The greens were actually a mix of collards and mustard greens, sauteed in bacon fat, then simmered in chicken stock. I probably threw in some pork of some kind in the greens as well, ’cause that’s how I roll! The corn sticks are always a crowd pleaser, as I managed to hang on to Sally’s cast iron corn stick trays. I used a traditional buttermilk corn bread recipe and because the trays were preheated in the oven beforehand, the sticks were crispy on the edges and light and cakey inside.

The chocolate cream pie is a closely guarded recipe–my sister Jenifer is always in charge of pie, because to everyone’s surprise, I lack any kind of sweet tooth. I am a person who does not, cannot, eat cake. It feels so good to get that out!

So there you have it. Sometimes fancy, sought after foam–laden fare just doesn’t do the trick. Sometimes you just want something that makes you feel like home.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad, and here’s to many more!

Is there a traditional family meal you enjoy? What are some of your secret recipes?

Photo credit: Staci Strauss