I was probably the only 14 year old girl obsessed with chicken fried steak.
I’d just seen a stage production of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a play based on a book of the same name by Robert Fulghum. Fulghum is a writer and Unitarian Universalist minister. His writing reminds me of Garrison Keillor but a little less folky and more “dad”.
It’s a sweet book full of fun G-rated antidotes that were a total revelation to me as a kid. Seinfeld had given me a solid introduction to observational humor, but this was the first time I’d seen it applied with storytelling. On a family trip around this time, I would discover in my grandmother’s guest room a treasure trove of old Reader’s Digests. Lauren age 14 dug in and read for hours. “Life in These United States” and “Humor In Uniform” would further bolster my desire to live life to the fullest if only to capture quirky, slice of life moments like this. I bought a copy of Fulghum’s book as soon as I could.
Among the reflections on family and life, Fulghum includes an essay on the food item chicken fried steak.
I had never heard of chicken fried steak. Initially, it seemed wholly ridiculous. Here you were taking not-chicken and breading and frying it like chicken (even though a piece of cow was inside). Baffling. Then you nestle it into a side of mashed potatoes and smother the whole thing with gravy. And it’s not the brown stuff you’ve known your whole life that just tastes like beef bouillon lumps. Oh no. This is something called country gravy. White with big black flecks.
I was fascinated. The world was so much bigger now. I had to have it.
At this time in my youth, I traveled quite a bit with my high school’s theatre group. One night we stopped at a roadside diner to grab dinner. I didn’t eat out much so seeing it on the menu was a shock. Like seeing a celebrity.
“OH MY GOSH. You have chicken fried steak?!” I squealed, overly excited.
“Uh yeah.” said the surely hundred-year-old chain smoker waitress named Gladys.
I ordered it. I marveled at it when it came. It looked like they’d made it up exactly like the one pictured on the menu. I tried to explain to my tablemates why this was important and who Robert Fulghum was. They didn’t get it.
Moment of truth. I tried it. It… wasn’t great.
The steak was tough and the gravy didn’t really taste like much of anything. The whole thing was a disappointment.
Then I remembered: Robert Fulghum didn’t eat his favorite chicken fried steak on the first try! His piece in the book is about his journey to find the perfect chicken fried steak. There’s a lot of variety in chicken fried steak and a lot of nuance. Does the gravy have sausage in it? Is it over peppered? Is it made from pan scrapings? Is the cube steak properly tenderized? Are the potatoes smooth or sort of smashed? You know. Nuance. Chicken fried nuance. You can see why it was a journey.
I needed a chicken fried journey of my own.
I tried it everywhere I went. If it was on the menu, I was giving it a shot. I soon moved to Texas, multiplying my chicken fried options almost exponentially.
I had a few I liked a lot. I had some really terrible ones. But a few years back I started buying cube steak and making my own at home. I had an egg station and a flour station and a whole system for frying them so the breading stayed on. I played around with the gravy. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. So, I think after all these years and many, many steaks… My favorite chicken fried steak might just be my own.
Reverend Fulghum, if you’re ever in my neighborhood, you’re welcome to a bite.