wonder how a legend gets started?
I had a small role in the creation of what has become one of Texas’
most enduring pieces of “fakelore” -- the story of the invention of
the chicken-fried steak.
It all began back in the 1970s with a friendly argument between me
and my still good friend, Larry BeSaw. Larry grew up in Cooke
County, where for a long time his parents operated a classic mom
and pop café.
Eschewing the food service industry, Larry had sense enough to pursue
a career in journalism, which is how we met. Both of us drew weekly
paychecks as staff writers for the Austin American-Statesman.
Larry’s childhood exposure to classic Texas fare helped him develop
a lifetime appreciation of good groceries, particularly chicken-fried
steaks. And that’s where Larry and I did not see ribeye to ribeye.
my grandparents fried steaks (which people of their generation tended
to call “chops”), I grew up with an appreciation of a well-smoked
but medium-rare grilled steak. Why have a lesser cut of meat dolled
up with flour and then cooked in grease if you could enjoy a juicy
piece of red meat as God intended it, warmed just enough so that it
no longer mooed?
Over countless cans of adult beverages, Larry and I debated the relative
merits of a rare steak versus a chicken-fried steak. Neither of us
could sway the other.
We worked for a daily newspaper, but during the holidays, with the
exception of the occasional calamity, the flow of news usually slows
considerably as people take off to be with their families. Knowing
an easy way to fill space when she saw it, in early January 1976,
Jane Ulrich, the newspaper’s lifestyle editor, commissioned Larry
to write a story on chicken-fried steak.
Back then, CBS’ Sixty Minutes had a weekly feature called “Point-Counter
Point” in which two people with strong but opposing views not-so-politely
expressed their opinions to viewers. When I heard that Larry would
be writing that story, I proposed writing a “Counter Point” view on
our ongoing culinary differences.
Happy at the prospect of filling even more space, Jane readily assented.
Hearing of our project, colleague Arnold Garcia offered to weigh in
with his argument that menudo trumped either one of our meat preferences.
Realizing she had now managed to fill the entire front page of her
section, Jane said that would be fine and dandy.
Garcia and I wrote essays which deservedly have been forgotten, (well,
I was sort of proud of my assertion that the Titanic crew member tasked
with keeping an eye out for icebergs had just eaten a chicken-fried
steak before beginning what would be his final watch) but Larry went
on to produce what has proven a timeless classic.
support of his thesis that chicken-fried steak is superior to any
other method of beef preparation, Larry created from whole cloth a
100 percent bogus history of the chicken fried steak. As he reported,
the dish was invented by one Jimmy Don Perkins, an unemployed draw
bridge oiler working as a short-order cook in the South Plains town
The momentous event, the Big Bang of the Texas greasy food chain,
occurred in 1911 a local café called “Ethel’s Home Cooking.” Larry
offered that the eatery got its name because whenever anyone asked
about Ethel, the proprietor answered that she was home cooking.
Not that Jimmy Don was all that smart. He merely proved yet again
the importance of the lowly comma by misinterpreting the waitress’s
hastily scribbled order reading “chicken, fried steak” and chicken-fried
Ben Sargent, who went on to win a Pulitizer Prize for his political
cartoons, drew the illustrations that accompanied the piece, which
appeared on Jan. 11, 1976. Judging by word-of-mouth feedback, our
editors and the newspaper’s readers liked the story. That was that,
we all assumed.
At the time, the American-Statesman and many other Texas newspapers
carried a syndicated weekly Texas history column by the late Jack
Maguire called “Talk of Texas.” Imagine our surprise, when two or
three weeks following the appearance of our story package, Maguire
told his many readers the story behind the creation of the chicken-fried
steak. Of course, he forgot to say where he stole it from. And he
apparently didn’t get that it was just a joke.
After that, the tale spread faster than spilled cream gravy. Former
American-Statesman humor columnist Mike Kelley was the first to point
out in print that the story of the birth of the chicken-friend steak
was complete fiction, but that has not stopped the falling dominos
of literary larceny.
Larry has a growing collection of articles telling the Lamesa
tale as truth. The Dawson County Museum in Lamesa
has a framed copy of our chicken-fried steak story on display and
there has been talk of having Larry come to Lamesa
to judge a chicken-fried steak cooking contest. He says recent buyers
of the bogus story include the online encylopedia Wikipedia, the august
Washington Post and the stately Smithsonian Institution, which in
an exhibit on Texas foods at least
used the word “purportedly” in recounting Larry’s story.
“Of all the stories I’ve written over the years,” Larry says, “I hate
to think the one piece of writing I’ll be remembered for is a lie.
I just wish I got royalties, or even credit, every time some other
writer steals that story.”
© Mike Cox
October 28, 2010 column
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