Queenie Wake’s Chicken-Fried Steak and Cream Gravy by Liza Palmer
I’m a fourth generation Californian who has made the foolhardy, some might say flat-out dumb decision to set her fifth book, Nowhere but Home, in a Texas kitchen.
What I learned rather quickly was that I could more easily talk about politics and religion than be a Yankee talking about a chicken fried steak with cream gravy recipe.
Six years ago I wrote Seeing Me Naked, a book about a pastry chef who worked in the finest French kitchens. That book – and the staggering amount of research I did – started something: an itch to know more. From those exalted French kitchens, I found myself years later in an unmarked double-wide in Smithville, Texas eating mouthwatering BBQ with a side of white bread asking for seconds, more sweet tea and if I could name my first born after the woman who ran the place. I’d fallen happily down the culinary rabbit hole with no intention of returning to reality any time soon.
My fifth book, Nowhere but Home, is about Queenie Wake, a failed chef who returns to her Texas hometown with her tail between her legs. But, what the book is really about? Food. And what’s food really about? Family. Love. Hate. Memories. Food has an inconvenient way of making us remember. And Queenie doesn’t want to remember, so she keeps the food of the five generations of Wakes in the Texas dirt at a distance.
And the meal that so defined the Wake women: The Number One.
Queenie’s mom, Brandi-Jaques, owned a restaurant next to the bar at the edge of North Star, Texas. Whatever anyone thought about BJ Wake – most of it bad, all of it true – they all agreed that she was the best cook in the Texas Hill Country. And the meal BJ was known for, far and wide was The Number One.
The Number One is chicken fried steak with cream gravy, green beans cooked in bacon fat, mashed potatoes, a buttermilk biscuit and a slice of pecan pie.
This past weekend I made The Number One along with my Amarillo-born mom who is an expert pie maker and my step-dad who is a Cordon Bleu trained chef who learned to cook in his Italian grandmother’s kitchen.
We rolled out the piecrust, mashed the potatoes, cooked the bacon, annihilated the green beans, dredged the steaks, fried em up and made the creamiest, pepperiest gravy.
As we put the meal together on a crisp white plate, the emotion choking in my throat. Once again, food got to the heart of the matter. There it was – the meal I envisioned, wrote about, tweaked, edited, copy edited – on the table ready to be eaten by my eager family. It was real.
Food makes memories real. Embodied in the flavors and scents of the moment, food makes us see, taste, smell, touch and experience the rush from that memory of long ago… whether we like it or not.
And this time? I liked it. A lot.
Queenie Wake’s Chicken-Fried Steak and Cream Gravy
Serves 8 to 10 or 3 to 4, no one’s judging
4 pounds tri-tip cube steak, run through a cuber twice (to ½-inch-thick)
2 cups all-purpose flour (or enough to dredge your steak)
3 eggs, whisked
1 tablespoon Adobo seasoning, or garlic powder, garlic salt, Cajun seasoning, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, or simply salt and pepper
2 tablespoons lard
1. Preheat the oven to 250°F.
2. Set up a dredging station with 3 pie plates or shallow dishes. Place 1 cup flour in the first plate and the eggs in the second. In the third plate, mix 1 cup flour and the seasonings of your choice.
3. Holding a steak by the corner, dip it on both sides, first into the plain flour, then in the eggs, and then dredge in the seasoned flour. (Save any extra seasoned flour for the cream gravy.)
4. Place the floured steaks onto a wire rack over a baking sheet and let sit for 10 minutes.
5. Add the lard to a skillet over medium-high heat, melting it to coat the bottom of the pan.
6. When the skillet is hot, add the steaks (working in batches to avoid over-crowding the pan). Fry the steaks for 4 minutes on each side, or until the internal temperature of the meat is 160°F.
7. As the steaks are done, remove them to a baking sheet and keep them in the warm oven until you’re ready to serve.
8. Serve them hot with Queenie Wake’s Cream Gravy.
Queenie Wake’s Cream Gravy
3 tablespoons seasoned flour (use leftovers from the Chicken-Fried Steak)
1 cup chicken broth
¾ cup cream (or milk, but why not cream?)
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Add the seasoned flour into the same skillet you fried the steaks in and whisk it into the pan drippings, getting all the leftover crunchy bits incorporated.
2. Cooking over medium heat, add the chicken broth to the skillet and whisk constantly until thickened to your liking.
3. Add the cream and season with salt and pepper to taste. Continue to cook and whisk until the gravy is thick and coats the back of a spoon.
4. Serve hot with the Chicken-Fried Steak.