Chicken Fried Steak: A journey.

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.

Reviews of Self Help Books I’ve Owned For Several Years But Have Still Never Read

Meditation for Dummies, 2nd Edition by Stephan Bodian

There you were at a Borders going out of business sale. You hadn’t been ripped to shreds. You still had your bonus audio CD included. I bought you with Acrylic Painting for Dummies and got a $10 rebate. Someday I will read you and listen to your CD and find true balance and renewed sense of peace. Or you’ll go out into next year’s garage sale. Good job, Lauren!

 

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here by Paula Begoun

I think I already have all the tools to have the Best Skin of My Life: mild depression and a vitamin D deficiency that makes me really sleepy all the time! But I suppose that someday I’ll crack the cover of your book and probably find out I’ve been doing skin care all wrong. I’ll wake up looking like a forgotten block of cheese in the bottom of a fridge drawer. But I’ll never know I’m wrong if I never open the book! Good job, Lauren!

 

The Art of Work by Jeff Goins

First I joined your email list in hopes that I could become motivated with my writing. You talked, much like Stephen King does in On Writing, about just committing to it. Like a job. Like your life depends on it. But here your book sits, untouched and unread. Like 90% of your emails from your mailing list, left to languish in my inbox like a friend you just can’t seem to make lunch plans with. “Ugh, gosh, shoot… Sorry, I just found out I’m working remotely… from Guam. Forever. And they banned lunch there. And reading.” I do like the semi-crumpled paper airplane on the front. I can identify with it. Good job, Lauren?

 

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

A successful artist friend recommended this book to me and I rushed out to buy it, insisting to myself I would read it! I would be motivated! Anything was possible!

Yup. Good job, Lauren.

 

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky

My therapist recommended you. You have zebras on the cover, pictures inside too… one picture has a monkey on it. A monkey! Who can say no to a cute little monkey and a book that discusses the management of stress related diseases THAT YOU KNOW YOU SUFFER FROM in an updated and revised edition of this self help classic?!

I can, apparently. GOOD JOB, LAUREN.

An open letter to cookbook author Jessica Seinfeld

Dear Jessica Seinfeld,

I want you to know that I just gave away my copy of your book, “Double Delicious! Good, Simple Food For Busy, Complicated Lives!” Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely book! The photos are great and everything looks and sounds delicious and I AM both busy and complicated. But we’ve got to talk about the whole ‘adding pureed vegetables into every meal’ thing.

I got the book at a book sale for a dollar. A DOLLAR! For a nicely made spiral bound cookbook with ultra healthy recipes! I thought to myself: YES! EVERYTHING WILL BE DIFFERENT NOW. I will have no loss in taste or flavor and just be able to sneak in some cauliflower puree. Or sneak in some spinach. We’ll be eating all kinds of veggies! I will be a veggie puree ninja. No one will suspect a thing.

But then it sat. And sat. And sat. For a year. I don’t have many cookbooks, but at this point I’ve used every other cookbook I own except yours, including “Tastes and Tales from Texas”. I suspect the prior owner of this book went through the same steps I have gone through while I owned your book:

  1. Denial: Yeah, I’m absolutely going to start making vegetable purees for cooking!
  2. Anger: There are two pages of equipment and three pages of instructions! That’s ALL busy and complicated!!
  3. Bargaining: I’ll pick up some cauliflower and give it a shot… and we’ll have a cupcake to celebrate!
  4. Depression: Cauliflower went bad. Cupcake’s eaten. I have to be up early for that thing. Ugh~
  5. Acceptance: I am never going to do this and should probably get rid of this book.

I’m sorry. It’s just that most of us with busy, complicated lives can’t invest in a puree system, take the time to do it, and then go about freezing them. Your entry level bar is too high. In the time it took me to read about it, whoops, I already ordered pizza and it is delicious. I can’t do it. Sorry.

I was looking forward to this inspiring other ways I could do good, simple things for my busy, complicated life. Like hot yoga while waiting at the DMV. Knitting a scarf that I am also casually wearing. Doing a fasting cleanse because I literally can’t get a lunch in.

So again, sorry about this. You know that old saying, “It’s not you, I’m just very tired and I want to go to bed, please.”

The doing is the thing.

I’m waiting to hear back from a local writing club to see if they’ll have me as a member. I like to write but understand it is a skill to be developed. That’s part of what this blog was born out of. I can crank out 500ish words or so for these posts or the newspaper articles I write for my college, but to move on to the next level I’m going to need help. I have Stephen King’s “On Writing”. I have a copy of “Bird By Bird” which I think will speak to my anxiety directly. I say ‘think’ because I haven’t cracked the cover. On either book. I have a mental block. I know, it’s crazy. You know what I am reading? A book about everyday economic theories!! YEAH. WHEW, LAUREN, SLOW DOWN, GIRL.

One of the goals I wrote down for that writer group was to read these books. My aversion probably relates back to my lack of confidence and weird newbie shame about my writing, so it’s more about confronting that than the knowledge within. Honestly, accomplishing any sort of writing project is confronting it. To quote Amy Poehler, “You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.” So I am doing the thing. Every blog post is a win. I’m chipping away at those negative feelings.

My acceptance in this club will be based on some writing samples I submitted. One was an essay I wrote for college. There was a Splitsider piece I wrote. And then some samples from the newspaper and this blog. Everything I selected was good writing; but more importantly, they were pieces I was proud of. If I can manage to bypass the anxious and the talking and the worrying and the thinking, I think I’ll be able to create more pieces to be proud of. I just need to keep it up and to be brave.

I’ll finish this up by sharing a short piece I’m proud of. I went to a writers conference a few years ago. One workshop included an exercise. We needed to create a short piece of fiction in TEN MINUTES with some key events: You’re in first class on a train. You notice something on the floor. You look out the window. Someone sits down next to you.

The other writers shared their work. It tended to be a bit softer, sort of ‘masterpiece theater’ submissions. Mine was… different. Sort of silly and snarky. I really liked writing it. Maybe I should do more writing prompt exercises. So enjoy, and if you’re feeling frisky, add your submission in the comments below.

Got on the train. Took my seat in first class.

I look to the floor and see a used Kleenex. Gross. It’s nice to know even in first class people still struggle to make mass transit a clean experience.

In walks a slender Gwyneth Paltrow type, clutching her cell phone, designer bag, and the hand of a three year old holding an iPad.

Oh. Awesome.

She looks right past me. I’m not surprised. She’s in her own world. People exist within it to do things for her. And why shouldn’t they? She clearly rushed here straight from yoga.

I turn to the window. The trees roll past. I try to peer through them. Farms out there, best I can tell. Splotches of amber, brown, and lush green. A fence runs along the tracks. It’s a totally different world from the train. Organic, open. The train car seems so unnatural, with the clicking and hums generated by our forward motion.

‘Gwyneth’ has sat down next to me now with her child, engrossed in his shiny gadget. She turns to me.

“Hi. Could you give Jonathan the window seat? Trains make him nauseous.”

Tea + book = TIME TRAVEL.

These are books about the internet. I told you I was a nerd, yes?

These are books about the internet. I told you I was a nerd, yes?

I’ve had a cold, so I should also note that tea + NyQuil  = TIME TRAVEL as well.

This week’s blog post was almost pictures of horses with googly eyes. ALMOST. But I’ve rallied in time to bring you some musings about reading. I like to read! It is ‘hide indoors and read’ weather! And I like to read the dried tree paste type of books, not these newfangled electronic books that all the kids are reading. It probably has to do with the fact that when I’m on an electronic device reading, I’m also on the internet, which makes it easy to OH LOOK A CAT

What were we talking about? Books. Ah yes. So I like physical books. The problem, though, is that I am terrible about sticking with one book. Right now I’m in the middle of nine books. Just sort of shuffling from one topic to the other, going back and forth, book to book. You might say this is a terrible way to go about reading, but I read 90% non-fiction books, so it’s not as bad as you think!

This also dooms me never to use a public library. I always paid my fines as they inevitably came until I gave up on borrowing books entirely. I was never the friend you lent a book to if you wanted it back anytime soon, which stung at first when I realized it… but I’ve come to accept my affliction. It has a name: F.A.R.T. – Fickle Arbitrary Reader Thievery. To anyone that has been a victim of my F.A.R.T., I am sorry. I can’t help nature. I read as the wind blows.

What I do instead is use PaperBackSwap. The idea is that you have books. Other people want those books. You post them, people request them, and you pay to mail them the book. You get a credit of a book. You ALSO want books. You list the books you want and as people post those, they come to you in the mail. Circle of life and all that. A semi-permanent library. Perfect for me.

At this time, I’ve been a member of PaperBackSwap for seven years. I’ve gotten 235 books. The closest person I’ve sent a book to was 13 miles from me. The furthest I’ve mailed a book was 5,854 miles away. (They were in the military overseas and ordered How To Survive A Robot Uprising – a bit disconcerting but HEY I’m sure we’re all going to be fine.)

Not every book you’ll list will come around. There have been some books I’ve had on my list since 2008. But I do get a steady flow of books coming and going. If I really like a book, I can keep it. If after 40 pages I’ve decided it’s not for me, I’ll ditch it and move on to the next thing.

I’m not sure if there are other F.A.R.T.s out there. But if you’re a F.A.R.T. like me, you might give PaperBackSwap a shot. As for me? I’m going to start a new book, I think. Maybe The History of Salt?! (Yes, this is actually a book I have.) (Yes, I am a terrible dull person.)

Also: POST BONUS – sometimes you’re not paying attention and you order two copies of the same book, like this:

Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good