“It’s a method for making shwaggy cuts of meat taste good,” explained my opponent, whom I’ll call the Shwagist. (Shwag, I should point out, is slang for crap — the opposite of quality.) The Shwagist contends there’s no reason to impose quality ingredients on a recipe the entire purpose of which is to make shwag edible — indeed, where such might even upset a certain aesthetic balance. This is harder for me to swallow than a tub of Cheez Whiz, because I believe your finished product can be only as good as your raw ingredients. We had what has to be considered a conflict of ideologies.
“We don’t want good,” the Shwagist explained. “We want chicken-fried steak.”
An archetype of American cuisine, epitomizing redneck, rural, down-home, and country, chicken-fried steak is something like a cross between fried chicken and biscuits and gravy. You can find it in greasy spoons and truck stops from Smackover, Arkansas, to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
|Chicken-fried steak, awaiting its signature gravy.|
But to the Shwagist, a Texan bred and spread, eating chicken-fried steak is more a homecoming than Oedipus ever dreamed of. It’s the flavor, the texture, the shwag of home. It’s from this position of authenticity that he takes, deservedly or not, his authority to preach the Gospel of Chicken-Fried Steak. Thing is, I wasn’t buying his shwag theory of authentic cuisine.
Instead, I went to the hippie-elitist store and bought some cream-of-the-crop ingredients: local beef, free-range eggs, and Japanese panko flakes.
That’s right, panko flakes, also known as Japanese bread crumbs. My recipe, which I found on Epicurious.com, called for an Asian-style soy-sauce-based marinade. The meat is dredged in beaten egg, coated in panko, then deep-fried.
That evening, I would bring the fixings for my chicken-fried steak to the agreed-upon location, where we would square off in The Chicken-Fried Steak-Off.
As the hour drew near, I realized to my shock and horror that my recipe did not include gravy, without which there was no way the Shwagist would allow my recipe to even qualify. It did come with a dipping sauce, a 50/50 blend of mustard and mayo that has to be considered ballpark culturally appropriate — not gravy, mind you, but certainly redneck. To cover my bases, I decided to also prepare a chicken-fried steak more true to its roots.
And what better root of chicken-fried steak than chicken-fried chicken? I recalled a fried chicken dinner I made for a date once … I’d soaked the chicken in beer batter all night long the evening before, and if I could score half as many points at the Chicken-Fried Steak-Off as I did with my fried chicken, I’d spank that Shwagist all the way back to El Paso.
So what if chicken-fried steak may have been the product of German immigrants importing weiner schnitzel to Texas in the mid-1800s? Beer-battered chicken-fried steak has a culturally appropriate ring to it. But since I couldn’t remember my special fried-chicken recipe, I used a beer-battered halibut recipe I learned in Alaska: mix equal parts pancake mix and beer (Alaskan Amber), and season with Lawry’s seasoned salt, pepper, and dill. You dip the meat in this batter, coat it in panko flakes — yes, more panko flakes! — and fry.
With my meat-tenderizing hammer I pounded pieces of local organic beef top round and elk chuck steak. The meat gets impressively flat and wide when you pound it. I subjected each type of pounded meat to each of my above treatments.
The Shwagist’s ingredients came from a chain supermarket and consisted of store-brand flour, milk, peanut oil, eggs, and cube steak (“Price Reduced for Quick Sale!”).
Following a recipe from A.D. Livingston’s Skillet Cooking for Camp and Kitchen, the Shwagist sprinkled his meat on both sides with salt and pepper. Then he beat his meat with the side of a plate. (And you thought panko flakes were weird.) After whisking together a mixture of egg and milk, he dredged the meat in flour. Then he dipped the pieces in the egg mixture before dragging them back through the flour for a final coat before frying them in half an inch of hot peanut oil in a cast-iron skillet. They emerged an appetizing hue of golden brown.
“The color of my youth,” sighed the Shwagist.
He went on to make what has to be considered a truly bland batch of gravy from fry oil, flour, milk, salt, and pepper.
Strangely, it was that shwag-steak, drenched in the blandest gravy, that I reached for more than my own preparations. As a taste sensation, the Shwag-steak really worked. As the only true chicken-fried steak in the kitchen, it had to be considered the winner.
Yes, once again I had missed the point entirely. Even my beer-battered dish
wasn’t chicken-fried steak. (Without gravy, the Shwagist reminded me, nothing really is. But I gotta say, dipped into the redneck sauce, it was definitely an example of something tasty.)
The next morning my leftovers, particularly those that aged overnight in their fried beer batter, were extraordinary — especially the elk. This battle isn’t over yet, folks. Next time, my chicken-fried elk steak will be marinating overnight in beer batter. I’m ditching the panko flakes, and I’m circling in on my opponent’s weakness: the gravy. With a non-bland gravy and beer batter, I’ll elevate chicken-fried steak to the culinary circles to which it rightfully belongs. Alongside Germany’s weiner schnitzel, Spain’s milanesa, and Italy’s egga planta parmesana, make way for the chicken-fried steak. l
The Chef is currently traveling in the Himalayan country of Bhutan, studying its transition to organic agriculture, so emails may not be answered in a timely fashion. On the other hand, we should have some interesting dispatches from the field early this spring.