Peasant food is fascinating. At worst it is inedible. By necessity made from humble, common ingredients often of poor quality, when prepared carelessly it’s worse than fast food. But when prepared with pride and care, it is an attempt to make the ordinary extraordinary. There is nobility in refusing to equate flavor with wealth or abundance and integrity in recognizing that feeding a family means more than grimly slopping mediocre food on the table.
The countless home cooks through the ages, often living on the edge of penury, who use creativity and resourcefulness to put refined, satisfying dishes on the table are culinary heroes every bit as praiseworthy as today’s celebrity chefs.
In culinary matters, Texas is best known for brisket and chili but its iconic dish is really the humble chicken fried steak—a think slice of cheap steak, pounded with a mallet until tender, dusted with seasoned flour, dredged in a mixture of milk and eggs, and then well-coated with more flour before being fried in leftover grease and served with a flour thickened gravy made with cream or milk. I guess it’s called “chicken fried” because it resembles fried chicken without the bones. The origins of the dish are murky but it was probably invented by struggling German immigrants in the mid-19th Century using the tough, stringy meat from a decrepit, backyard cow to duplicate weiner schnitzel.
Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of chicken fried steak—I’ve had too many microwaved patties with mushy breading slathered with a flavorless, pasty gravy while slumming through the South looking for cheap eats. But I’ve never been to Texas Hill Country in central Texas where the dish likely originated and where they still take pride in it. That’s the thing about peasant food. Its made of ordinary ingredients; only love and pride that can make it special. To get the good stuff you have to go where its humble origins still stir the emotions.
So when we pulled into Johnson City to do some wine tasting I couldn’t resist the advertisement for Hill Country Cupboard: Best Chicken Fried Steak in the World (Over 3 Dozen Sold).
Self-deprecating humor is a virtue when selling peasant food.
I don’t know about “best in the world” but the CFS was damn good. To my mind, CFS must meet 4 criteria to be worth eating:
1. Meat that is tender but with some chew
2. A thick, highly seasoned crust with lots of crunch that will stand up to the gravy. (This means fresh oil at just the right temperature to guarantee crispness)
3. Made- from-scratch gravy, creamy not gloopy, with lots of cracked pepper, I mean lots of pepper!
Hill Country Cupboard’s CFS met all of them. Traditionally it’s served with mashed potatoes and green beans. But I couldn’t resist the country fried potatoes and freshly made frijoles with tomatoes, onions, peppers and epazote. The sides were as compelling as the main.
I haven’t tried the wines yet but at least the cheap eats will satisfy.