Chicken-Fried Steak Hoax
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.
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.
| While 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
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 of Lamesa.
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 a steak.
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.
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.”
October 28, 2010
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