When you grow up eating a dish, you like to think you're an authority on that particular item. After all, you've been eating it your entire life. How could someone else think their alien version of crawfish or tamales or barbecue is the correct version?
The type of cognitive dissonance that occurs when you're presented with an alternative version of something you'd assumed you were intimately familiar with has been dissected by philosophers from Plato (in his classic allegory of the cave) to Dan Dennett. It isn't just limited to food, yet our native cuisines are something most people take as seriously as their religion or language; food is a reflection of our culture, our ethnicity, our history.
Take, for instance, the first time my ex-boyfriend was presented with tamales in chile gravy. He grew up poor, just outside of the Rio Grande Valley, eating them covered in ketchup; chile gravy was unfathomable, and he prefers ketchup to this day. Take a Cajun to a Swedish kräftskiva and watch the expression of horror on his face as he realizes the crawfish are not only boiled in dill but served cold. Try get a Texan to eat North Carolina-style barbecue without complaining bitterly about the meat, the sauce, the smoke, the everything.
So it is with me and chicken fried steak. A seventh-generation Texan on my mother's side, I've been eating chicken fried steak my entire life—as have my parents and grandparents before me. No matter how progressive I consider myself in my more indulgent moments, I can't be progressive when it comes to CFS. It should be pounded thin like a milanesa, surrounded in a crispy batter, and served with cream gravy. On the side. Always on the side. This is how I was raised to eat chicken fried steak, and how I'll raise my kids to eat it one day too.
Gravy on top of a chicken fried steak only makes the crunchy batter soggy before you have a chance to get even halfway through the dish. It enrages me when I order a chicken fried steak and see it bouncing out of the kitchen covered in gravy; I can already picture the batter becoming gravy-logged and sodden before I even take a bite.
Of course, this is entirely my own fault.
My colleague Robb Walsh, an authority on Texas food despite his Yankee roots, assures me that chicken fried steak should be served with gravy on top. This is less a fact of structural integrity (no one can argue that serving gravy on top does the CFS any favors) and more to do with efficiency; it's easier to slop the gravy on top than ladle it out separately, and you've got one less bowl to wash later. No matter how many of us are on the side of the angels—the side where gravy comes on the side, naturally—most restaurants simply aren't going to capitulate when efficiency is involved.
His solution: "I always order it on the side." This is everyone's solution, it turns out.
"When was the last time you had chicken fried steak and it was served correctly? That is, with gravy on the side?" I petitioned my friends on Facebook. "Every time I order it that way," my buddy Robert Harvey responded immediately. This was the group consensus: you're the master of your own CFS destiny, so don't screw it up. You have only yourself to blame if you don't specify gravy on the side.
And then there were those who insisted on reminding me that there is no "correct" way to serve chicken fried steak. "Should I be worried about the gravy police knocking on the door?" asked my friend B.J. Ghassemieh. "Correct?" echoed chef Jason Kerr, who eschews the notion entirely.
"There are at least three different ways to serve chicken fried steak," offered Walsh, as we talked the matter over at the office. You can pan-fry it (the way I grew up eating CFS), you can deep-fry it in oil, and you can serve it with either cream or brown gravy. "Did either of y'all grow up eating it the way I did, with brown gravy and lemon slices?" chimed in fellow Houstonia writer John Lomax from his nearby desk. Walsh and I stared at him, mystified.
"That sounds like schnitzel," I said. "Specifically the part about the lemon slices." Maybe the version Lomax grew up eating in Nashville is the closest of all to CFS's original German roots as lemon-accented wiener schnitzel; its close cousin, jäger schnitzel, is served in a dark, rich gravy filled with mushrooms and bacon. Regardless, this isn't the version most Texans are familiar with—and that, at least, we can all agree on: it's cream gravy on CFS or bust.
"The last one I got was at Luby's on Waugh and they slapped brown gravy right on top of it," recounted Texas Radio Hall of Fame broadcaster Lanny Griffith on my Facebook wall. "I had no idea people would come unglued over brown gravy on a CFS. I thought I was going to have to leave town."
Luckily, there are still a few places in Houston that serve it the "right" way—at least according to my own CFS preferences. My friends mentioned The Jay Cafe in Needville, Ouisie's Table in River Oaks, and the Busy Bee in Alvin as three such spots where you don't have to request gravy on the side. My friend Dat Lam chimed in with another suggestion, for CFS he had "a week ago at Harry's," the Midtown diner that's been dishing out the dish since 1948.
"And yes," reported Lam, "it was served correctly with white gravy on the side." Correctly for us, at least.