Fried Goodness at the Texas State Fair
A belated posting…
If your eating sentiments lean towards Templeton the Rat then the Texas State Fair is for you. A fair, is a veritable smorgasbord orgasbord orgasbord…
But woe to you who counts calories and attempts in infiltrate this epicurean fantasy world. Woe, I say! You are not wanted here, nor do you belong. As I’ve grown older I, like Remy in Ratatouille, have become more conscious of what I’m cramming in my cramhole. But once a year I revert to 12-year-old form. Back when I could have reduced logging camp cooks to tears for want of hash and flapjacks. That occasion is the Texas State Fair.
Now I have heard it said that other state fairs, specifically the Minnesota edition, are the best when it comes to the audacity and creativity of their fry cooks. Lies. In Texas, a fried peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwich is considered standard fare (pun intended). This is the Fair that invented (or at least perfected) the corn dog. (More on this later) In Texas, it takes something really crazy to generate interest. Two years ago, someone found a way to fry Coca-Cola.
So every year on the occasion of the annual Texas-Oklahoma football game I endeavor to nomnom as many unusual fried delicacies as I can find. The reason why this post is so late is it takes me awhile to recover. It’s a great time, and the pre-game tension and post-game glories are as important a part of the rarified dining experience as the bubbling cauldrons of oil and the oozing grease.
WARNING: What follows is not for the faint of stomach. Do not attempt this: you take your life into your hands.
The most exotic stuff can be found on the west side of the Cotton Bowl by agriculture exhibits (where you can view a pig with a nutsack the size of a deflated basketball, a sight to behold). As you might guess this is one of the highest traffic areas of the fair, but pleasantly also the area with the cheapest beer (another necessity). My first mission was the winner of the annual fried food contest: Chicken-Fried Bacon.
I was actually surprised this hadn’t happened earlier at the fair, it’s not exactly a new invention. The original iteration of the dish was created (like the Frankenstein monster) by Frank Sodolak, owner of Sodolak’s Orginal Country Inn in Snook, Texas, according the entertaining book Texas Curiosities by John Kelso. Solodok’s version is six double-breaded strips, deep-fried in oil, and served with a side of cream gravy. As Jayne Hurley, a senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is quoted in the book:
“I’ve never heard of anything worse. They’ve taken fat, they’ve double-coated it in fat, they’ve fried it in more fat, and they’ve served it with a side of fat.”
Yes’m, and God Bless Texas. As you can imagine, Sodolak’s has been a desired road-trip destination for some time for my friends and I, but I have never made it happen. By the by, for you confused Yankees, the term “chicken-fried” doesn’t mean there’s any chicken in the dish. Just like the famous chicken-fried steak -which was invented in Texas- it refers to the way it’s cooked: fried, like chicken. (Fun fact: CFS isn’t actually the state dish of Texas, chili is. It is the state dish of Oklahoma because they weren’t good enough to come up with anything good on their own. They had to borrow from us, just like when they’re searching for college football players. Yet another example how football explains America.)
So back to the CFB…someone either took the idea from Sodolak’s or came up with it on their own (a logical assumption in an environs given to pushing the fried envelope), and figured out a way to prepare it for mass consumption. Thus we have the Fried Food Fanatics’ Holiest of Holies.
Well I’ll be damned if after all that ballyhoo…it wasn’t good. It tasted like the flimsy, artificially enhanced bacon you would get in an elementary school cafeteria, coupled with fried-chicken skin from a third-rate chain. In other words, it tasted like grease, and not good grease. I blame quality of ingredients. CFB at the State Fair was definitely the Icarus of the trip. Hopefully when I finally do make it to Sodolak’s my faith will be rewarded.
So after that disappointment I needed a beer and some dessert. I needed….
FRIED COOKIE DOUGH!! Which was easily the winner of the day. The sharp chocolatiness of the hot fudge and the chocolate chips merged perfectly with the more robust flavor of the dough. In addition, the contrast between the crispiness of the fried shell and the still-creamy dough was a revelation. I will come back for more next year.
Then it was game time. Texas won 45-35, later finished with the same record as Oklahoma, yet got shutout of the Big 12 title game only to watch OU choke in a national championship game the Longhorns could have won. I digress, but this photograph of an artifact that I found under a bleacher gives a good indication of the kind of atmosphere one can expect.
Back to the fray, it was time for a break. And by break, I mean a huge turkey leg, which was probably the best one I’ve ever had. Oh, and another Shiner.
Incidentally, I’ve read that Shiner Bock, once popular in the Northeast, has suffered from a backlash due to the unpopularity of another well-known Texas export. This is unfortunate. My family has long been a Shiner fan and the brewery is only a 20-minute trip down Hwy 90 from our country house. If you don’t like the well-known bock, may I recommend Shiner Blonde (a pale lager which the Spoetzel Brewery has brewed continuously since 1909), Shiner Hefeweizen (an unpasteurized Bavarian wheat beer), or Shiner Black (a very dark brew due to its roasted malts). Besides, don’t hate on our beer. It’s not our fault, our beer laws are bass-ackwards.
Then it was time for Fried Smores, another winner in the annual contest.
As you can see from the picture, the smore (What’s a smore? A bar of chocolate and toasted marshmallow in a graham cracker sandwich so-called because you want “s’more”…you Philistine) is deep-fried and cut diagonally. It was interesting enough. The chewy, sticky and flavorful marshmallow paired curiously with the crispy crust. But the graham cracker flavor, so integral a part of the magical smore combination, was lost in the frying process. While the cookie dough was enhanced by the frying process, after eating the fried smore you couldn’t help but regret that it wasn’t just a regular smore.
While I was waiting in line for the fried smore, my cousin Grace came over with the most consistently great of fried deserts, fried Oreos.
How best to describe the goodness? Like the fried twinkie (which wasn’t sampled on this trip), fried oreos may seem exotic but they’re at pretty much every Tom, Dick, and Harry fair out there. So when I’m on a mission for exotics I tend to overlook them. But they’re a lot like that basketball player on your team that isn’t a star and no one ever talks about but all the sudden you look down and they have 12 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists. Fried Oreos are a consistent triple-double threat. They’re like the Hakeem Olajuwon to the wow factor and raw power of the fried Twinkie’s Shaquille O’Neal.
I would pick Hakeem/fried Oreos every….single….time. The process of being coated in batter and fried has the same effect on the formerly crispy cookie as dunking it in milk. It’s soft but not soggy, and the chocolate has become almost gooey. I’ve always thought of powdered sugar as possessing a kind of ephemeral sweetness. On most fried desserts the sugar is a kind of unnecessary accoutrement, but on the fried Oreos it does its job perfectly, putting down a perfect base sugariness to the sweetness of the cookie and the batter. Good every time, and I managed to pick a few off of Grace.
My final dessert wasn’t part of the plan, but it hit me in the nostalgia so I had to try it. Fried Honey Bun.
When I was a kid I would eat Honey Buns for breakfast every time I went to my Nana’s house. It was a flavor of my childhood, so I just had to have it fried. Unfortunately the results were predictable. There’s really no point in coating fried dough in fried dough. That’s just redundant. This dish could never figure out what it was doing. Plus the frozen Honey Bun really didn’t take well to frying, parts of it weren’t completely defrosted. Also all the powdered sugar served to do was to collide headlong with the honey and make it too sweet. Ah well, had to be done.
It was about time to go and my body was about to shut down from all the conspicuous consumption, but not before once more sampling the best (and most phallic) food the Fair has to offer…
A Fletcher’s Corny Dog. That’s “corny,” not “corn.” That would be like calling St. Peter’s Basilica “a church.” It’s not just a corn dog, it’s THE corn dog. It demands the “-y.” After you eat a corny dog, you really can’t enjoy corn dogs. They are as shadows, crude pencil drawings of the most beautiful work of art; the most transcendent concerto rendered into Muzak.
Not all corny dogs at the Fair carry the proud name of Fletchers, so take heed. The Fletcher family introduced their corny dogs at the State Fair in the late 30s. If they weren’t the first to look at a hot dog and say, “Needs to be covered in cornmeal and deep-fried,” then they certainly proved to be the best at it. They’re fried creations have proved successful enough to get the heiress to the Fletcher corny dog fortune kidnapped in December! That’s right. Some states have land barons, cattle barons, oil barons, and timber barons. Texas has all that plus corny dog barons. If that ain’t nouveau riche then I don’t know what is.
I don’t think I can really do it justice. However, a word of caution: Yes, there is a ketchup dispenser, but if you put anything but mustard on your corny dog a native Texan has the legal right to sock you in the face. It was in the original list of grievances that the Texan delegates listed in our Declaration of Independence from Mexico signed on March 2, 1836, at Washington-on-the-Brazos.
As always at the State Fair, there is one that got away. I couldn’t find fried guacamole. “I’ll be back next year,” I groaned to myself on the ride home, popping Tums like they were Pez, “if I don’t die right now.”
by Alex (who’ll get an avatar eventually)