State Plates: Oklahoma
Okay! Rodgers and Hammerstein sang the praises of Oklahoma’s waving wheat, but there’s more than grain in the larder of the Sooner State (a nickname earned by anxious homesteaders during the 19th-century land rush). While Oklahoma’s “green country”, in the northeast, is dotted with peach orchards and pecan groves, the west is home to vast cattle grounds, which provision a carnivore’s delight at big-city steak palaces and the mom-and-pop roadhouses along Route 66. Defined by oil booms, dust bowl desperation, immigration, and strong American Indian traditions (a greater number of tribes live here than in any other state), Oklahoma’s cuisine is hearty and enduring.
Stick to Your Ribs Though historians believe that chicken fried steak was invented in Texas by Austrian immigrants who used local beef to make a version of their beloved wiener schnitzel, Oklahomans have made this decadent dish their own. Also called country-fried steak, chicken fry, or just CFS, it’s composed of inexpensive cuts (usually from beef top round or chuck) pounded to tenderness, battered, fried, and served with pepper-flecked cream gravy. Some of the best chicken fried steak in the state is served at the 36-year-old Ann’s Chicken Fry, in Oklahoma City.
Local Hero After working as a private chef for wealthy families and catering for musicians, including Cab Calloway, when they were passing through Tulsa, Cleora Butler (1901-1985), a self-trained cook who was raised on a farm in the eastern part of the state, opened Cleora’s Bakery and Catering in Tulsa in 1961. She fricasseed quail for oil kings, brewed her own beer to share with neighbors, and united black and white Tulsans at the table during racially turbulent times. Her cookbook, Cleora’s Kitchens (Council Oak Books, 1985), doubles as a vividly written memoir spanning the first eight decades of Oklahoma’s statehood.
Latest Greatest Oklahoma’s cities lay claim to many a creative chef. In Tulsa, James Shrader of Palace Cafe uses herbs from his parking-lot garden in dishes like miatake mushroom custard. Tuck Curren’s year-old Local Table is known for updated classics like Cajun meatloaf. At the Coach House, in Oklahoma City, Kurt Fleischfresser celebrates local ingredients in dishes like Sooner State lamb with ancho-cherry sauce. His latest venture, Musashi’s, is a steak house featuring Oklahoma-grown Kobe-style beef.
NINE REGIONAL TASTES
1. The seven-inch burger at the Meers Store & Restaurant, in the town of Lawton; it’s made with beef from the company’s own herd of Longhorns.
2. The crisp, deep-fried fruit pies (we like the blackberry and apricot versions) from Nancy Fulton’s Fried Pies, off I-35 in Davis.
3. The powwow and state fair staple known as Indian tacos—fry bread (a puffy, deep-fried flat bread), folded around seasoned meat, beans, and cheese.
4. The savory cured sausage at Lovera’s Family Grocery, in Krebs, a mining town settled by Italians in the 1920s.
5. The fruity chenin blanc from StableRidge Winery, in Stroud, an old Route 66 pit stop in the central part of the state.
6. The thick-sliced smoked bologna from Elmer’s BBQ, in Tulsa.
7. The banh mi—sandwiches of roasted pork, pickled daikon, and cilantro—from Banh Mi Bale, in Oklahoma City, a favorite of the town’s thriving Vietnamese community.
8. Oklahoma pecans; they’re meatier, tastier, and brighter in color than the common, paper-shell cultivars, and they’re the main reason the state’s pecan pies are so sublime.
9. The grass-fed bison meat from Wichita Buffalo Company, based in Hinton; you’ll find it in restaurants across the state.