By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It seems like the same thing happened with Erpillo: This is her 42nd year working at the fair and last year she won Best Taste with her fried peaches and cream. You'd think that when she came around the corner and told her mother, Wanda Winter, the saint who brought the first funnel cakes to the fair, "Mom, I'm gonna fry salad," that Erpillo would've gotten a swift kick in the rear for talkin' crazy.
But it's not crazy: Erpillo and Zable clearly know their audience. The media hype that happens in the weeks before the fair even opens and before anyone has even tasted the food, that couple of weeks between the announcement of the finalists and the announcement of the winners, can translate into a four-hour line of people waiting for your food on the first day of the fair. And that translates to a lot of dollah billz in carny pockets. These days, if you want to bring in the cash at your concession stand, it's about making dare food. What the people want is a good old-fashioned food freak show. Come up with something that sounds strange enough and every one of us thrill-seeking fatties will have to try it.PHOTOS: The Fried Food Finalists at the Big Tex Choice Awards
Just after this year's finalists were announced, getting hold of Zable was tough. When I got my turn, I was allowed 10 minutes. Right off the bat, Zable said, "I've been working on frying beer for over two years. I had a lot of failures, explosions. Even talked to a food scientist. Eventually, though, I figured it out on my own." He's already given this same speech to countless people, you can tell. Zable said, "One bite, and the escaping beer serves as a dipping sauce." Wait—so you're telling me once I bite into it, this thing's gonna barf beer? I'm confused: I thought I was supposed to be the one barfing beer at the fair.
He started talking about trademarking his idea: "I knew I needed protection because it was such a unique idea.. Plus, it was cheap to trademark it. It was a no-brainer." Months ago, he called Shiner to talk about co-branding. "You know, that way I could call it Fried Shiner." Nobody called him back. Now, he's worldwide news.
Zable's fried beer has been the biggest topic of conversation among the finalists, too. They all agreed, pre-competition, that fried beer is an innovative idea, and they all wished Zable the best. But they had some concerns for him.
"We were experimenting with fried beer at about the same time," said Gonzales (inventor of fried Coke), "I didn't like it." Gonzales told me that his main obstacle had been keeping the beer cold. "But I'm sure his is good." Then, referring to the fact that only those 21 and older can try fried beer, Gonzales remarked, "I just can't give up the audience. It scares me."
Nick Bert (fried Frito pie) worried more about Zable's fry cooks, "I wish him all the best, but you couldn't pay me to be that fry cook." Bert worried that if the temperature of that fry oil is too high, those fried beer raviolis might explode and things could get messy. "Kinda sounds like bombs might be going off in the grease."
"I don't like beer. But I can't wait to try it," said Tami Stiffler (fried lemonade finalist). And that's the kind of quote Zable's gotta love. Even beer haters want to know what this thing tastes like. Ka-ching.
Despite their concerns for Zable, none of the competitors seem malicious. They really are like a family—eight kids trying their hardest to compete for a bit of Big Tex's love. And maybe elbowing each other in the ribs whenever Big Tex's back is turned.
Last year's fair dare food was Abel Gonzales Jr.'s fried butter. This year, I called him right after I spoke with Zable and unlike Mr. Fried Beer Trademark Populartown, Gonzales picked up on the first ring. He said that he "just woke up about an hour ago." It was noon. On a Wednesday. "I'm just eating my Cheerios watching some OCC [American Chopper on the TLC network]." This guy has every man's dream job.
He used to have a day job, but ever since he started serving up fried Coke and fried butter, Gonzales only works three weeks a year. He sells enough fried deliciousness at the fair every year that he can sit around, Scrooge McDuck-ing in his gold doubloons for the other 49 weeks.
Referred to as "The Fry King" by State Fair officials, Gonzales has won at the Big Tex Choice Awards for fried PB&J sandwich (2005), fried Coke (2006), fried cookie dough (2007) and fried butter (2009). He's been interviewed all over the world, he was just on The Rachael Ray Show and he's the subject of a feature in this month's Texas Monthly. His name is synonymous with fried innovation. When asked about how he feels about all this attention, Gonzales said, "In the carny world, to be a name anywhere near the recognition of Fletcher's—that's an honor."