Food really gets me going. I enjoy eating it, cooking it, planning ways I will cook it, shopping for things I need to cook it, thinking about paying to have it served to me in restaurants, sitting in restaurants while it is served to me. Food is more than nourishment; it excites and inspires me.
There was the time two years ago when Calvin and I ordered a chicken in a restaurant in Paris. It was a $400 chicken in a 3-star restaurant and we liked it very much.
There were the six times I ate the same fish dish—also in Paris—because it comforted me.
There was the time in San Diego when someone breaded a chicken breast in jalapeno slices and I ate it at 1am on New Year’s Day.
There were the times in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Idaho when Calvin and I ate schnitzel. This schnitzel was at a restaurant in Zurich called the Kronenhalle. It was on the evening of December 31, 2012. The restaurant, by the way, has a strict policy against photography, even of your own food, so this image is something of an achievement.
There were ribs in Memphis (yes) and toasted ravioli in St. Louis (meh). I have picked meat from the crabs of several oceans and from lobsters on the rock-ribbed coast of Maine. I’ve eaten sumptuously in my life.
It might therefore surprise some readers to learn that I love Taco Bell. In Ann Arbor in the fall of 1982 I skipped lunch in East Quad and ate two enchiritos—no beans, no onions—every single day. Every so often I’d have three of them.
I also love Popeye’s. Popeye’s chicken is better than Mama’s fried chicken and Mama’s was good. Popeye’s chicken also leaves a far thinner film of grease on the stove and surrounding counters and counties than Mama’s fried chicken did.
Still further, I dine from McDonald’s Dollar Menu at least twice a month and don’t apologize for it. If I’m feeling flush I’ll have a Quarter Pounder with Cheese or Filet-O-Fish and won’t apologize for that, either. I never built a relationship with Burger King or Wendy’s but don’t quarrel with people who have such attachments.
Beyond what is known popularly as Fast Food but which my instructors in culinary school took pains to refer to as Quick-Service Food there are regional delicacies.
In my years in Chicago I learned about deep-dish pizza. The olive oil-y crust of Chicago deep-dish pizza serves merely as a vessel for the delivery of melted cheese, along with a little sauce and sausage, to the mouth. (Eating deep-dish pizza is in my view the only time it is acceptable to use utensils to eat pizza.)
Sometimes when you buy tacos in Los Angeles they come to you flat, like little wilty fake pizzas. People seem to get off on it but after 15 years of living in Los Angeles I still haven’t accepted the format as sensible.
In Texas, the land of my birth and upbringing, chicken fried steak is the stuff of life. We didn’t think in terms of good or bad in 1975; chicken fried steak was just a given, like cheap gas, Blue Northers in November, and chigger bites on your ankles.
I have been spending time in France lately. I like France, French people and French food. Still, one’s mind and memory go after a period to home, to times past. My mind went to chicken fried steak and I wanted to make some, but it is hard to justify the hassle of making chicken fried steak for one person, especially when you take into account the mashed potatoes, gravy and such.
Hagen and Christine, my gracious hosts and landlords in Fitou, agreed to allow me to prepare chicken fried steak for them, in their kitchen, as a good-bye treat. They probably figured out my ruse but it was to be a treat at least as much for me as for them.
The following is a chronicle of my preparation of chicken fried steak in France. It happened last night.
Right from the start, a Texan in France has to understand that in France beef is cut from the animal in different ways than at home. One doesn’t go to the supermarket hoping to find round steak.
Just this minute I lost interest in explaining French butchering terminology, so I’ll move right to the cooking.
Rendering rumsteak suitable for chicken fried steak meant the energetic application of a wine bottle to it. And after whacking it with the still-full bottle of Côte Carcassonne I stabbed it repeatedly with a dinner fork. I Norman Bates’d it for a solid minute, after which it appeared ready for chicken-frying.
Christine stirred things often. I told her that Calvin is also a stirrer, and that I frequently tell him that things don’t need stirring nearly as much as he stirs them. She understood the point of my little story and stopped stirring things.
Hagen saw fit to document my footwear.
Hagen took the better pictures accompanying this essay. He took this picture of me taking a picture of him.
Chicken fried steak is rather pointless without mashed potatoes. It didn’t come up in conversation but I wonder if Hagen and Christine are used to seeing mashed potatoes made with the skins on. Maybe they thought I just wasn’t very good at peeling potatoes and didn’t want to embarrass me by mentioning it.
What I did to the green beans was cruel but it’s the way I grew up with them. I cooked bacon (lardons fumés) and onion (eschalotte) for a while, then added the beans and some water to the pan. They then boiled for about an hour beyond the point at which a culinary instructor would say they were at their prime. This is the Lubification of green beans. (I just made that up but Texans will surely understand.)
I do not know what was so funny.
Here I am with Christine and Hagen. This was before we sat down to eat.
Christine began to whisk the gravy. I thanked her courteously but advised her that that particular activity was unnecessary, after which she ceased whisking.
My German friends gobbled everything right up but I didn’t. My interest in eating food diminishes in direct proportion to the energy I exert in preparing it.
This morning I stepped out of my apartment onto the porch. The day was cool but not cold and it was damp outside in the Languedoc-Roussillon.
Christine was on her scaffolding, painting the rear of her and Hagen’s building. It became clear that she was unprepared for the digestive burden that had been placed upon her by chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and white gravy.
“What was in that, anyway?” She held her hand to her abdomen. “When I went to bed last night I felt this…this heaviness in here. It just sat there.”
“Yep, that’s chicken fried steak.”
Hagen’s head popped out of a window. He began to explain in gruesome detail the slow progress of the previous evening’s dinner through his body but I stopped him and used the opportunity to enlighten him on the concept of T.M.I.
“T.M.I., Hagen.” But I knew what he meant.
My chicken fried steak was adequate (I almost said “passable”) but not great. I really think you need a big vat of oil to do chicken fried steak justice. Still, it assuaged my homesickness. Now, if I could just find a cheese enchilada…