There’s A Chicken Fried Steak Conspiracy In Southwest Oklahoma
At the turn of the last century, you could pop into just about any Oklahoma restaurant, local or national chain, and order yourself a homestyle old fashion chicken fried steak with country gravy... but Oklahoma just isn't like that anymore.
In my hometown, we had a regular date night at the local Chili's. I was 18 or 19 and eating at the chain restaurant seemed like the grown-up thing to do. This was before I learned that valuable lesson about local eats.
After having moved away to Texas and lived in a half-dozen other places before settling back into Southwest Oklahoma, it's staggering how many places have ditched this Texoma staple food, and of those still serving it, it's nothing like it used to be.
I've spent years thinking that restaurants dropped their chicken fried meats due to a public that grew more observant of their health, but if you look around even the healthiest menu items on most any chain-restaurant menu are worse for you than anything homemade in your own kitchen. It's just the nature of the food industry.
Now I'm convinced the chicken fried steak has changed.
Every once in a while I'll get a craving for a chicken fried steak. My SWOK/Texan mother used to make it at least once a week growing up, I'm sure there's at least one dish you crave when you start thinking about home too. So I've slowly searched for a proper chicken fried steak in Lawton, and I haven't come up with anything that hits the mark.
True, you can pound out just about any cut of beef, flour and fry it to golden perfection, but it's the gravy that every big restaurant seems to get wrong, and it's that corporate one-size-fits-all business model that probably did it.
Sawmill gravy is a Southern delicacy... but Oklahoma isn't nor has ever been "Southern."
If you didn't know, sawmill gravy is made with a roux based with meat grease. Flour is tossed into bacon or sausage grease in equal parts, then milk or cream is stirred in to turn that thick roux into a creamy gravy. Sounds good enough, but only if your cook knows how to cook a ridiculously easy-to-ruin roux.
Here's the rub... In rural Southwest Oklahoma, nobody made cream gravy with meat grease.
Before you hit "compose" on an email to tell me I'm wrong, history tells it like I am.
It all stems back to Oklahoma's dustbowl and The Great Depression. Most food staples shifted to accommodate the standard of living at the time. Meat was expensive and a luxury on the farm especially processed meats like bacon or sausage. It wasn't something that was served up every Saturday morning in most homes.
This is how beans became an ingredient in chili, and cheap corn chips started to replace half a bowl of chili. SWOK even replaced BBQ brisket with smoked bologna, and nobody complained because it was filling and tasted like meat. The same goes for depression-era biscuits and gravy.
Flour, baking powder, eggs, butter, milk, salt & pepper. An entire meal made with ultra-cheap ingredients.
Since families didn't always have meat on hand to render the fat out of for their gravy roux, cheap affordable butter became the standard "country gravy" base. Mix in a little flour, it makes a really pale blonde roux, stir in milk and add pepper for perfect white gravy. It's so stupidly cheap and simple.
As that recipe gets taught and passed on down the lineage of family heritage, that's the delicious gravy we grew up on.
All the same, my professional homemaker and stellar cook of a mother occasionally made gravy with leftover grease and it always tasted fine too... So what's the deal with chain-restaurant gravy?
I think it's liquid smoke.
If you've ever watched any competition cooking shows, you know the easiest way to "cheat" that slow-smoked taste in quick fashion, you add a hit of liquid smoke to add hints of maximum savoriness.
When I bite into most SWOK chicken fried steaks, that hit of smokiness comes off tasting like either the slow-cooked roux was either burned or grease base was rancid to me... then another thought hit me...
Do you know what restaurants all have in common? Distributors.
Sysco, Ben E. Kieth, US Foods... You've probably seen the trucks all over town, especially if your daily commute lands you anywhere up and down Cache Road. Maybe restaurants aren't making gravy anymore, opting for the instant truck-bought stuff instead.
Since Oklahoma's population of just under four million people will most likely never be influential to market trends, that southern smokey sawmill gravy is just what we get since we're geographically located so close to "The South."
Maybe it's a conspiracy to change Oklahoma's identity for profit... lol
Seriously though, if you know of a place with a stellar chicken fried steak, let me know. I've tried a bunch locally, I even ran across a place that tossed sauteed onions in their gravy...
WHO PUTS ONIONS IN THEIR GRAVY?!?
Maybe I'll find that simple Southwest Oklahoma chicken fried perfection at one of our fine diners or dives... If you've had one that you consider a favorite, email me. I'd like to taste the good old days again.