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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The Great
Chicken-Fried Steak Hoax

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Ever 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.

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 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.

In 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.

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
"Texas Tales" October 28, 2010 column

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