All this talk of goetta and its related German-American peasant dishes sparks another conversation about a truly American dish that has similar origins – the chicken or country fried steak. What more perfect food is there than a tenderized beef cutlet, dredged in season bread crumbs, deep fried and served with peppered milk gravy? Well some Texans would add that the dish is even more perfect with chipotle in the milk gravy. And who, again do we have to pay tribute to this delicious dish – the southern Germans and Austrian-Moravian immigrants of the 19th century who inhabited the south plains of Dawson County, Texas. The dish resembles the German/Austrian dish Wiener Schnitzel, a breaded pork or veal cutlet served with thick gravy that the immigrants brought with them across the Atlantic. They quickly adapted the dish to the cattle they ranched. And, although invented in Texas, it has been named the Official State Meal of Oklahoma.
While the prevalence of cheap pork led the German immigrants in Cincinnati to develop pork based economical dishes like goetta, the prevalence of beef in Southern Texas, led them to create cheaper meals out of their more common meat staple. So, to utilize cheaper cuts of tougher meat, country fried steak was invented. Given the stringiness of steers in the 1830s, pounding lesser cuts into a more edible form seemed wise. The tenderizing of a lower cut of beef, and the breading and deep frying of it gave it more flavor than it would have had without the treatment. And then topping it in gravy made from its own juices, well that’s just brilliant, and cheap. Those Germans were not ones to waste good lard!
Much like German Cincinnatians ate goetta before exercising on the weekends at the Turnerhalle on Walnut Street in Over the Rhine, or after singing their hearts out in preparation for a Saengerfest at Music Hall, the Texas Germans were coming home to chicken fried steak after their acrobatics at the High Hill Turnverein.
There are two claimants to the origin of the country fried steak. The town of Lamesa, the seat of Dawson County, claims to have invented the dish, and has a celebration in its honor every year. John Neutzling of the High Hills of Bandera, Texas, also claims to have invented the dish. The story as Lamesa tells it goes this way: In 1911 a short order cook named Jimmy Don Perkins mistook an order for chicken and fried steak in flour batter, serving with french fries and cream gravy. Lamesa’s legend comes with bill signed by State Rep. Tom Craddick of Midland which names it as the “legendary home of the chicken-fried steak.”
My friend and now a fan of Cincinnati chili, Robb Walsh, the respected Texas food authority, has a theory about the dish. He wrote about it in a 2007 article for the Houston Press, breaking down the dish into three distinct versions, stating that each may have a separate heritage. The East Texas one, dipped in egg and then flour, is probably connected to Southern fried chicken. The central Texas version, sometimes using bread crumbs in the mixture, probably comes from those German immigrants. And the eggless West Texas version is probably more closely related to what the cowboys called pan-fried steak. However, these are probably regional variations, that evolved post-introduction by the German and Austrian-Moravian immigrants.
Wherever it originated – plains or high hills – the country fried steak is a beloved comfort food, popular outside of Texas and Oklahoma, and again brought to us by the genius of frugal German immigrants.