As Lent is upon us, I have been interested to learn what people are giving up in this season of abstinence. It is no surprise to me that the item most often abandoned is some sort of food. There are a few iconoclasts who do without tobacco, or alcohol, or shopping. I never got beyond the idea of renouncing something edible (I gave up chocolate). To many of us, foregoing food is the ultimate sacrifice. There is only one person to blame for my epicureal preoccupation: my mother.
Mom is the last of her line in a fine tradition of southern cooks. She grew up in a large family. Her own mother, my grandmother Winona, had to satisfy nine healthy appetites for the better part of two decades. Winona had no microwave or dishwasher as helping hands in the kitchen. It is no wonder, then, that as the oldest of six children, my mother soon found herself the number one kitchen assistant, and thus learned to cook at the apron strings of the master.
It is difficult to recreate the multi-dimensional majesty of my mother’s cooking
via the printed word. Thanks to Mom, if I ever find myself on death row and they ask me what I want for my last meal, I am ready with an answer: my mother’s chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, green beans, and her homemade yeast rolls. Her home-brewed iced tea is the perfect accompaniment. As is the case with most meals, the meat is clearly the star.
Chicken-fried steak is a southern specialty, often confusing the uninitiated. Is it steak? Is it chicken? Deep-fried or pan fried? Some are surprised to learn it is only the humble cube steak, pounded into tender submission before being dunked in milk to allow the flour coating to stick. Then the palm-sized portions hit the hot grease of my mother’s black cast iron skillet with the initial hissssss to rival any McDonald’s French fry operation. Once they have turned a toasty brown and filled the house with the intoxicating aroma of fried meat (my apologies to vegetarians), they are ready to eat. When that first batch hit the paper towel-lined serving dish to make room in the skillet for the next, my father could always be found skulking about in the kitchen, stalking stray nibbles of steak that had become separated from the Pangaea of the bigger portions. Done properly, as my mother always did, chicken-fried steak requires nothing sharper than the side of your fork to divide it into bite-size pieces.
The side dishes pale in comparison to this pan-fried glory. They are there for the sake of upholding tradition; and in the case of the potatoes, upholding my mother’s cream gravy.
Never in all my classroom hours of chemistry or math did I ever approach the level of timing, precise measurement, and pure artistry required to duplicate Mom’s cream gravy. Making gravy from scratch is my culinary Holy Grail. I have tried and failed more times than the Jamaican bobsled team. There are just too many things that can go wrong. The grease must be of the correct temperature (hot) and quantity (equal to the flour). The flour must be stirred into the hot grease vigorously, so that the dreaded lumps cannot form. Then, and only then, the correct quantity of milk is added. If you do not own the little pink crockery bowl my mother uses for the milk, you will never be able to get the milk quantity right. I do not own one of these bowls, as they have not been made since 1960.
This is why, when Lent rolls around each year, giving up some sort of food is the worst suffering I can imagine. When I am feeling contemplative, I wonder how something so harmless as a good meal in good company should be something I should try to control; avoid, even. Then I look at my last cholesterol test results. I suppose setting aside one of my favorite edibles is the least I can do for Lent this year. If I had any guts, I would have given up chicken-fried steak.