It takes a certain amount of audacity to deep-fry butter, bacon, and beer, but let’s face it: The State Fair of Texas is not a destination for those seeking subtle flavors (nor is it the place to kick off your new diet). The staggering variety and abundance of food, most of it designed to eat while roaming about, is not for the faint of heart. “The food at the State Fair of Texas is one of the best state fair food experiences in the country,” says Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.”
With tongue-in-cheek options like “cup of trash” (seasoned ground beef, roasted corn, cheese, and sour cream in a cup) and an unabashed love of anything and everything deep-fried (e.g. bubble gum, red velvet cupcakes, queso), food vendors here send a clear message. State Fair chow is for fun, not five stars, people. The annual shindig, held each fall in Dallas, is affectionately known as the fried-food capital of Texas. But you’ll also find down-home flavors that pay homage to culinary traditions (e.g. smoked bologna sandwiches, country-fried pork chops), ethnic options that reflect the state’s diversity (deep-fried sauerkraut balls), and a pavilion poised to teach you everything you wanted to know about Texas agriculture.
According to Carolyn Newport McKee, owner of Newport Concessions, a vendor that has served fair-goers since 1950, the magic is in the entire sensory package. “So many of the food items are specific to the fair and festival. People try to take the experience and the foods and put them in a restaurant, and it just isn’t the same.” In other words, strolling in the sunshine, hearing live music, and following the aroma of sugar-dusted funnel cakes is an integral part of the charm. “It’s about having a sausage-on-a-stick in one hand and a drink in the other,” Carolyn says.
In an effort to ramp up excitement about their culinary offerings, fair organizers created the first annual Big Tex Choice Awards contest in 2005. Since then, the awards have sparked new levels of creativity—and kookiness.
Abel Gonzales of Dallas has won the contest four times. “Abel Gonzales has inspired a generation of creative fair-food-freaks, who each year try to out-cook each other in a profound way,” says Zimmern. “His deep-fried Coke is my favorite.” Last year, Abel’s deep-fried jambalaya won the prize for “best taste,” and fellow competitor Butch Benavides’ fried bacon cinnamon roll took the honors for “most creative” (his fried cactus bites with jalapeño-ranch dressing was also a finalist). Butch says the appearance of the fried Twinkie a decade ago first piqued his interest in competing. The following year, he arrived with a fried Snickers on a stick. “The fun is the challenge of coming up with new fried stuff,” says Butch. “I’m already brainstorming about what to serve next year.”
Once you’ve had your fill of mac-n-cheese sliders and fried club salads (for the health-conscious), you may want to seek out deep-fried versions of chocolate-chip cookie dough, MoonPies, and Pop-Tarts.
Old School Favorites
Not all paths lead to vats of hot oil. Classics like funnel cakes and Fletcher’s corny dogs are fried, of course, but other vendors serve items like jumbo turkey legs and caramel apples, which provide a delicious sense of nostalgia. “There’s plenty of innovation, but old-time foods like hot dogs, nachos, and lemonade continue to be a big draw,” says Carolyn Newport McKee. What they lack in shock value, they make up for in attention to detail. Newport Concessions’ popular sausage-on-a-stick features sausage produced in Fredericksburg from a family recipe. For its signature chocolate nut bars, vanilla ice cream bars are hand-dipped in chocolate and rolled in chopped nuts.
The Texas Department of Agriculture’s Food and Fiber Pavilion promotes all that Texas agriculture has to offer and is the perfect venue to engage millions of visitors through educational exhibits, entertaining events, and—bring a large bag—free samples!
Check out the TDA’s consumer education program, “Agriculture is Your Culture” to learn how the industry touches our lives daily (from the food we eat to the cosmetics we use). Nestled in the center of the Pavilion is the GO TEXAN General Store, a retail venue featuring GO TEXAN-certified products, including Texas-made food, apparel, and gift items. Examples include honey, toffee, pecans, salad dressings, salsas, soaps and lotions, and Texas souvenirs.
So what are you waiting for? Choose an elastic waistband and head on down to the fair.
The 2013 State Fair of Texas takes place Sep. 27- Oct. 20 at Dallas’ Fair Park. Call 214/565-9931.