By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Walking into The Dock restaurant at Fair Park early Labor Day morning, you smell nothing but cotton candy, grease and arrhythmia. Mmmmmm. Take in a nice, deep breath of impending diabetes, y'all. It's time for the final judging of The Big Tex Choice Awards.
After years of experimenting and weeks of worldwide media hype, the moment is finally here: It's time to taste Mark Zable's Fried Beer. The other seven finalists' entries in this year's Big Tex Choice Awards, the dramatic prelude to the opening of this year's State Fair of Texas, have been tasted and scored by the judges. There's just one little basket of ravioli-lookin' fried innovation left.
"Let's do this," says a co-host of the BaD Radio show on KTCK-AM1310 (The Ticket), Donovan Lewis, who's also one of the three judges of this year's awards. He takes a deep breath, then a bite of Mark Zable's already-trademarked and already-hyped-from-here-to-Australia fried beer. After a hard swallow, he asks, "Can I get some water?"
Another judge, Marvyn Sylvester (a data analyst from StarTex Power, one of the fair's major sponsors), says, "Creative. The beer wasn't bad, just didn't go well with the whole pretzel idea." Say what? Beer and pretzels don't go together? Beer and pretzels go together like herpes and Lindsay Lohan. What has Mark Zable done so terribly wrong that he's managed to make beer and pretzels not go together?
The third judge, Brian Maki (Silverado Marketing Manager for Chevrolet, another of the fair's major sponsors), beams about the fried beer. "How they get the beer to stay liquid in there is amazing. He should get an award for engineering this." So I ask him if it tastes good. "Umm. I dunno. It's probably one I'd order and then share with my friends." And then he offers me one.
Excited to try one of these already legendary suckers, I snag a fried beer and bite into it. Images of old socks and frat parties come to mind, and to top it off I get that horrible sensation of "What's that warm liquid oozing down my arm?" Yuck. Hypothesis confirmed.
The Dallas Observer's own food critic, Hanna Raskin, takes advantage of the opportunity to try a free fried beer with the same eagerness I had. She bites in and warm beer spews all over Maki's judging table. It's a beautiful fried-beer spit take, complete with bitter-fried-beer face. It reminds me of that fair vomming scene in Stand By Me, only it's fried beer barf-o-rama instead of blueberry pies.
With the taste-testing portion of the judging complete, the judges turn in their ballots, scores are tabulated and minutes later the winners are announced. Nick Bert's fried Frito pie wins Best Taste and Mark Zable's fried beer wins Most Creative.
Zable fucking won with that fried-beer shit.
Fried beer made the people taste-testing it literally hurk all over each other. And it's like the three judges went, "Well, clearly that's the winner right there! That's so innovative!" and then labeled it this year's Big Tex Choice Award for Most Creative. Zable cheered. People clapped. And while he took his smiling pictures with the media, the other contestants quietly gathered up their fryers. Nobody yelled, "We were robbed!" Nobody got in a Real Housewives of New Jersey spitting match. Not one fryer was thrown. Because everyone there knew he had that category in the bag. I was stunned.
How on earth did fair food come to this? When the state fair first opened in 1886, church groups and social organizations looking to fund-raise served up fried chicken, sausage sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, raw oysters, popcorn, peanuts, ice cream, watermelon and hot candy. And, of course, wine, beer and hard liquor.
But soon, fair food became a little less raw oyster, a little more fried palpitations. In 1942, Neil and Carl Fletcher invented the corny dog. Jack's French Fries became a staple after WWII. During the fair's 16 day-run in 1954, fairgoers consumed an estimated 1.5 million hamburgers and hot dogs, 140,000 boxes of fried chicken, 200,000 candied apples and 500,000 bags of popcorn. And in 1964, it was the Zable family who brought Belgian waffles to the fair for the first time.
Today there are upwards of 100 different varieties of fried items served at the fair every year, and thanks to the Big Tex Choice Awards, that list just keeps growing.
The awards are officially described as "a friendly food fight among fair concessionaires." Basically, they're the Carny Emmys. All fair food vendors get an invite every year to participate, and if they're interested, they submit a description of their entry to a committee for review. At that point, fair organizers narrow the field to a group of entries they'd like to taste. This year, a committee tasted 28 of the 61 total entries. From there, the field is again narrowed (this year to eight finalists). On Labor Day, three judges taste, two winners are announced and the prize? One little bobble-head Big Tex trophy that magically brings your concession stand a line of eager fairgoers begging to throw money at you every single day of this year's fair, from September 24 all the way through October 17.