By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The only requirements are that the food has to be "new to the Fair, unique and taste-tempting." And although it seems like it must also be a rule that everything's gotta be fried, if you ask Sue Gooding, Vice President of PR and Community Relations at the State Fair of Texas, about the fair's fried food competition, the first words out of her mouth will be, "The foods entered in The Big Tex Choice Awards don't have to be fried. It's not a requirement." OK, so how many of the 61 total entries this year were fried? Gooding pauses. "Every single one of them." And how many of the winners have been fried foods since this competition started in 2005? Gooding laughs a little. "Every single one of them."
Christi Erpillo, owner of The Dock restaurant in the Embarcadero Building and one of this year's finalists in the Big Tex Choice Awards, later told me, "Well, Sue maybe didn't mention that they do say on the application, 'Special consideration given to fried foods and on-a-stick.'" Erpillo's entry is a fried club salad. It's a 12-inch spinach wrap rolled around diced ham and chicken, iceberg lettuce, carrot strips, cherry tomatoes, shredded cheddar and bacon, deep fried until lightly crisp. And, just for extra special consideration, I guess, she added some croutons. On a stick.
Erpillo says she came up with the idea last year during Oprah Winfrey's visit to the fair. "Oprah had been eating all this fried food all day and she was like, 'I think I've had enough of fried food—I'm gonna have salad all week.' At that moment, I was like, 'I'm doin' it. I'm gonna fry salad.'"
Fried club salad is another one of those names with a significant gag factor. Fried. Salad. I mean, fried beer is gross but at least when you first hear those two words together you think maybe there's a chance it could work: Fried's good. Beer's good. Could be good. Fried salad sounds about as fun as fried school. "I don't know what to expect from this," judge Lewis commented before taking a bite. And after chewing for a bit, "This was the one I was really worried about. It's really good, though." Sure, it's tasty—but how many man points do you lose for ordering something like that at the State Fair of Texas? "Probably a lot. But I have my man card laminated, so it's all right."
In the September issue of Texas Monthly, there's a story about Abel Gonzales, Jr. (of fried Coke and fried butter fame), in which he fries salad. Erpillo says, "I heard about the article. It's not like I rushed out to buy the magazine or anything. But I did hear that he said something like, 'fried salad is my personal Mount Everest.' I guess I was just ready to climb that mountain before he was."
OK, so you climbed Fried Salad Mountain. But what was the view like at the top? I tried the fried salad and all I saw was, "Eh." It was your average spinach wrap, only fried. It was fine. But it didn't seem like fair food. Because it was...semi...healthy. Why on earth would you fry something for the fair that has some nutritional value? Cue Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park: "We were so preoccupied with whether or not we could, we didn't stop to think if we should."
I was similarly confused when Allan Weiss, the finalist who entered Fried Texas caviar, started talking to me about the health benefits of his black-eyed peas, which are fried up and then rolled in a spice blend made with Old Bay seasoning (and available in mild or spicy). "We all know black-eyed peas are healthy." Huh? When you fry them, doesn't that unhealthy them up a bit? And who's coming to the fair looking for healthy food? Not Texans. Weiss agreed. "For a lot of people, it is their one time a year to splurge."
Fair food is supposed to be diet-ending. It's supposed to be the food sin you crave all year long. But more than any of that, it's supposed to be ri-gaddamned-diculously delicious.
It's not that these people are physically unable to fry up something that's worth eating. Zable's the same guy who makes my favorite fair food on the planet: the chocolate-covered strawberry waffle ball. It's two chocolate-covered strawberries shoved onto a stick, dipped in waffle batter, fried and dusted with powdered sugar. Shove it in your mouth and your face will thank you. Profusely.
Zable's family has been a name at the fair for decades. He says, "Forty-seven years ago, my dad opened this stand. He introduced Belgian waffles to the fair. I grew up here. I was a baby sleeping under the counter. This'll be my 39th fair." His stand still offers Belgian waffles and they also make those really great sweet jalapeño corndog shrimp. So why the foray into over-the-top deep-fried funk? Is he sick and tired of hearing people happily moan and groan as they eat his food? Is he abusing our complete faith and trust in him?