Chicken Fried Steak, or…

 

Why I Will Never Be 100% Texan

I went to a Christmas gathering the other evening (5 down, 17 to go), where chicken-fried steak was the predictable entree.  Before I tell you my real opinion, allow me to describe this carnivoric concoction for those who may think I’m writing in oxymorons:

Chicken-fried steak is steak fried in chicken batter. It’s that simple, but there’s more. The steak in question seems always to be the most grizzle-permeated, toughest slice of beef from the oldest milk cow ever to be sent, in the name of McDonald’s hamburgers, to the slaughter house. As the various cuts of beef are making their way down the conveyor belt to be ground and smashed into all-meat patties, there is a wizened old man who watches all day for those chunks of meat with no marbled fat, no discernibly chewable texture, and no possibility- none- of being cut into stew meat or turned into a chopped BBQ sandwich. If there are big tough ingrained tendons still hanging from it, so much the better. Our wise old man grabs that piece of meat and sends it to the chicken-fried steak slicer.

Where it is inspected one more time. If any parts of the cut can be saved for dog food, they are cut away and put aside, so that the butcher now has only the bottomest-of-the- barrel beef with which to work. He then sets about slicing that meat into the thinnest portions possible that will still meet the FDA’s definition of “steak.” (That’s .0078 of an inch, about the thickness of two playing cards stacked on top of one another.)

At this point, the slices are packed and shipped to banquet managers all over Texas. These are the party planners who work for companies and organizations that want to give their customers and members the impression that they are down-home, sh*t-kickin’, good old boys, who- by god- remember Grandma’s chicken-fried steak just like the best of ’em. “Git ‘er done” they order as they pass on the pitiful pile of pinkish “meat” to the batter specialists.

The batter specialists are immersed all day in vats of flour, Sysco System sized cans of Crisco and chicken broth, and other stuff that I don’t know about and will never want to know about. They slather the meat in a mixture of all the above, then set the meat to frying in pans full of not-hot-enough grease so that calorie-laden fat has the optimal opportunity to soak through to every molecule of this mess. But, once cooked and cooled down to to a tepid temperature for serving, there’s one more coup d’ grace to be performed:

A big spoonful of white gravy is plopped down over the entree. White gravy– you read that right: tasteless and coagulating the moment it hits the cold, grease-sodden entree of the evening. It looks like this:

chicken fry 1  

Now, in this picture, the gravy is on the side, but- be assured- it won’t be for long! I chose this picture, so that those who have never seen a chicken-fried steak may now know one of the archetypal psychological horrors that Jung never had the chance to write about, and which haunts some of us transplanted Northerners to the point that we are unable to relax- ever- when we know there is a banquet we must attend. (“Please, God, a steak, or chicken- grilled, baked, broiled, even boiled- but NOT chicken-fried steak! Please, God, in your mercy..Amen)

Real Texans love their chicken fried steaks. But, just so you know: I don’t. At all. And that’s why, despite the fact that I love living here, and will consider myself one day lucky to be buried here, that I will never be 100% Texan. I will have to be happy, as will those around me, with only being a 98.9 percenter.

(for a slightly less biased view, Wikipedia has the inside story here.)

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"Road Hazards Affect Driving Conditions"

That was the top-of-the-page headline in this week’s local paper. Really.

In a small Texas town, it’s sometimes a challenge for editors to fill a paper with enough “news” to be able to pretend that it’s the news, and not the advertising, that is the reason for the paper’s existence. This is not to say, of course, that the local paper doesn’t have its share of “normal” bad and unsettling news, but the weeks between “Major Drug Bust on West Side of Town” and “Local Man’s Death Going to Grand Jury” are way more numerous than they are in, say, Dallas or Fort Worth.

So why do I love reading the local paper each week? It’s precisely because headlines about driving conditions are the norm and not the exception. Local newspapers do not have as their primary purpose the scaring of their readers into a state of fear and submission to advertisers for more information about pharmaceuticals, better security systems, and this weekend’s local Gun Shows. Small town newspapers, quaint and funny as they sometimes are, reflect lifelong local attitudes that have been shaped by less noise, less hurry, and- around here anyway- this:

moon crop 

This is the moon. I can see it almost every night, along with stars, planets, and the occasional meteorite. If it’s not cloudy, I can watch the sun rise and set by looking east or west from my backyard. If it is cloudy, I can join the rest of the town in hoping that it rains, or snows. Snow here is not only rare and pretty, but, like the rain, life-giving. It’s not an inconvenience on the 40 minute morning commute through traffic fumes and toll booths. It’s moisture for the fields, ponds for both the cattle and coyote, and the promise of springtime wildflower extravaganzas.

The rhythms of rural areas and small towns are determined by the land upon which they sit and the skies under which they are nestled. Going to bed with the glow of the moon coming through the bedroom windows is- for me- a far superior way to go to sleep, than with the light from street lamps, Taco Bells, and passing police and fire trucks ever was. (24 years in Dallas; almost 5 years here)

And while I have no way of measuring it quantitatively, I wonder often how it is to experience such an earth and sky centered existence for a lifetime? I wonder about that because, having lived in both urban and rural settings, I observe a richer awareness by people here in the countryside of where their humanity is rooted. The explosion of wildflowers every spring may, for some people here, become passe. Nonetheless, they are seeing them; the colors are filling their minds whether they are aware of it happening, or not. The Big Sky they have looked up at everyday since they were bouncing in backyard strollers,  is an ever-present reminder that humans are not at the top of any apex concocted in a corporate boardroom or automobile showroom.

I wonder about those things, because not only do I observe them, I feel them. I can hear ducks out at the lake, coyotes in the early evening, and the rustling of mesquite and mimosa trees almost anytime. I can see people I know driving by the house. I never hear obscenities like “Hump Day” and “TGIF” from people bound to share their misery at work that day with me. I feel the calm of the moon on the horizon and I feel a serenity in the calloused hands of ranchers as well as in the sounds of the Friday marching band on the football fields a few blocks away. I’m reminded of truths which really matter- like, ‘road hazards affect driving conditions.‘ And I’m not so prone to be addled by the subtle but relentlessly fearsome noise of emergency vehicles and morning drive time.

I have a clearer, more ready, less encumbered, and desirous view of this:

wildflower

Tao Te Ching 5

 

The Tao doesn’t take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn’t take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the center.

When we fall into the clutches of judgement, we fall away from the embrace the Tao. As we seek the image of ourselves in others, we turn our backs on the Image of God in everyone.

It is there: in the confusion of Love, the misperceptions of Beauty, and the ignorance of Truth, the Source of perfect Love, universal Beauty, and unfolding Truth, is still to be recognized. We can perceive it. We can, even if it is only a hunch, be assured of its Presence. We can begin to be embraced again,  and we can be healed of ourselves.

Our tethers to the heart of God are those who live in wonder, whose questions outnumber the answers they’ve found, and whose lives are lived in perceptible and widening circles of inclusion. In those persons, and in each blade of grass and every towering oak, we can touch the Tao.