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.
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?
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.
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."
Since he's won so many times, I figured Gonzales' competition must hate him. "Not to my face, but there's a lot of whispering. I'm kidding. We all get along. The competition makes us all better. It's been so great for all the vendors," he said. "Before the Big Tex Choice Awards, corn dogs and Jack's fries is all it was. This competition has inspired us all, kicked us into top gear. A lot of the people outside the competition see it as me versus them. It's fried food. C'mon. Don't suck the fun out of it."
Last year, after Gonzales' fried butter hit newsstands, butter queen Paula Deen of Food Network fame made a point to mention that she had that recipe on her show before his butter balls showed up at the fair. Gonzales counters, "I never said I was the inventor of fried butter. I give her all the credit, man. I didn't know it was out there. I had no idea. I thought of it on my own, then I started getting on the Internet to make sure somebody else hadn't done it and Paula came up. But then I read her recipe and that's nothing like what I'm doing."
This year, Gonzales went less freak show, more chocolate roller coaster with his finalist entry of fried chocolate: Take a white chocolate mini candy bar and a cherry, stuff into a brownie, dip that into chocolate cake batter, deep fry, then top with powdered sugar, cherry sauce and chocolate whipped cream. And he just calls that "Fried Chocolate." I'm thinking the name mighta been an undersell, dude. Although fried chocolate was the best thing I tasted all Labor Day, and judge Maki said it was, "fantastic," Gonzales didn't win an award for it. But does this dude really need another bobble-head? Would he have screamed like a little girl if he'd won? No way.
Ya know who did? Nick Bert's crew. When fried Frito pie was announced as the winner for Best Taste, Bert went up to accept the trophy along with his giddy-like-a-schoolgirl friend (and the inventor of fried Frito pie), Michael Thomas.
Bert's the one with access to the fair (through his family-run restaurant at the fairgrounds, Bert's Burgers), but it was his friend, Thomas, who came up with the idea to fry Frito pie. Bert's a Dallas County Deputy Sheriff. Like a lot of concessionaires, he uses his three weeks of vacation time to work the fair. In 1919, his grandfather, Sammie Bert, started a concession stand at the fair selling snow cones. In fact, it was his grandfather who, after having spent seasons hand-shaving the ice for his snow cones, invented the motorized snow-cone machine.
Fried Frito pie is just what it sounds like: Texas chili and sharp cheddar encased in Fritos, battered, fried and served with a dollop of sour cream. It's that classic Frito pie, made conveniently portable and considerably less messy. Like the Ferris Wheel, fried Frito pie delivers exactly what you expect of it: just straightforward fun, no freaky surprises. When Donovan Lewis tasted fried Frito pie, his eyes widened and he said, "Oh, that's reeeally good. I love Frito pie, so I might be a little biased, but that's gooood."
Bert's not the only one with friends feeding him ideas for the new fried foods. Tami Stiffler's gotten so many ideas thrown at her by her friends in the past few years that she now keeps a file of them in a drawer. "We had fried beer in the file, guess it's time to take that one out," she said. Instead of going the fried beer route, this year Tami made it to the finals with her fried lemonade. Unlike Zable's ravioli filled with liquid, Tami's fried lemonade is more like a fried lemonade-flavored cake ball. They throw three of those suckers into the bottom of a cup, then douse them in about three inches of super-lemony glaze. It's more lemon cake than lemonade. Kind of like a lemonade version of Gonzales' fried Coke. It's good. But neither will get you hammered.
Luckily, that's where the deep-fried conquistadors also known as the Levy brothers come in. According to Jake Levy, coming up with the idea to fry a frozen margarita was easy. It was the execution that was the hard part. "We thought of it last year, but we couldn't figure out how to pull it off," says Jake Levy, whose father started Desperados restaurant in 1976, and who, along with his brother, Michael, has operated a concession stand at the fair for the last nine years.
"We were like, Desperados has an award-winning margarita. We should fry that up. We tried a million different batters and different stuff: Margarita jelly, but that didn't freeze and fry well. We tried margarita ice creams but they lost the flavor. We finally added our margarita to the batter and deep fried that. Now we've got it figured out."
They start with funnel cake batter, add the margarita and fry it up. They throw that in a cup, cover it in more frozen margarita, then whipped cream, powdered sugar, and you eat it with a spoon. If you're looking for the most fried buzz for your buck, this is where it's at. I had a shot glass-sized sample and it was great. It was kinda weird that somebody threw their cake in my tequila shot, but I guess it got me buzzed enough that I didn't care. As Lewis put it, "Couple of these and I'll be ready for the night. I'm about to take my shirt off and dance on the table."
You prefer a strawberry margarita? They'll add strawberry puree on top just for you. More into virgins? Don't feel left out: Jake Levy says the fried margarita will be available in a non-alcoholic version as well, "Because we don't want to leave out the kids." Finally! Kids get in on the margarita action! I know my toddler's gonna be hyped. Never too early to teach the next generation about frozen bevs. Me: (best Mom voice) "Sweetie, no—you suck some margarita through the straw first, theeen you lick the salt off the rim."
One of the entries that's actually appropriate for kiddos is Isaac Rousso's ridiculously sweet, kid-breakfast-rolled-in-a-kid-breakfast-rolled-in-a-heart-attack, Fried S'mores Pop-Tart. Rousso's deep fried s'mores Pop-Tart is a S'mores Pop-Tart, lightly battered, rolled in Reese's chocolate peanut butter cereal, deep fried, then drizzled with chocolate syrup and topped with whipped cream. Proud of the extreme level of sugar in his dish, Rousso boasts, "It's obscene."
Not into chocolate? Rousso told me a few weeks ago that he would also be serving up a strawberry Pop-Tart version using the same method. Now you're speaking my language, Rousso. I ask, "You mean the strawberry Pop-Tart with the icing?" He says that's exactly the one he means. He says, "I roll it in Fruity Pebbles. I'll make you one on Labor Day if you want."
And just like a bratty kid, in the middle of all the hubbub on Labor Day, when Rousso's busy being all sad and dejected that he lost the competition, I insisted that he make me the Pop-Tart like he promised. "Uh, OK. Let me just get the fryer going. You want sprinkles?" Does Kate Gosselin suck at life? Of course I want sprinkles.
I drooled all over this fried strawberry Pop-Tart as it came out of the fryer, and in one bite achieved my yearly allowance of sugar. As I was taking a bite, doctors around the world started shaking their heads at me in disgust. One crunch into the fried Fruity Pebbles crust plus the warm strawberry of the Pop-Tart and my teeth instantly fell out. Dentists cheered.
I liked it, but the judges had differing opinions. There was a lot of that dog-eating-peanut-butter face going around among the judges as they tasted the fried s'mores version. Lewis was not a fan. "It's a little hard going down."
This year the fair's theme is "Super Sized Fun." Fitting, right? Because if any of us walks into the fair thinking we're not walking out at least a couple of LBs heavier, we're kidding ourselves. Well, fair PR person Gooding says that, in fact, the theme came not out of the fair's being an overeater's paradise, but out of a discussion fair officials had with the North Texas Super Bowl Host Committee. Because the Super Bowl will be at JerryWorld this year and the fair wants more involvement with the big game, fair officials decided to give a nod to the Super Bowl in this year's fair theme.
And Gooding says it's even more appropriate because, "We've got a 52-foot tall Big Tex greeting visitors, the tallest Ferris wheel in North America, the largest car show in the Southwest and the biggest college football rivalry in the Texas/OU game."
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And, drum roll: We're the fourth-fattest city in the nation, according to Men's Health Magazine. Super siiiiiized!
If you give an event that serves literally hundreds of fried foods a theme like "Super Sized Fun," you might as well just adopt the slogan, "Come one fatty, come all! It's the great State Fair of Texas!" Which would be great. For once, let's embrace the true purpose of the fair: For three glorious weeks, kids get to win giant stuffed animals, and parents get to become giant stuffed animals.
This year, Nick Bert's fried Frito pie won Best Taste and nobody in the room could argue. It was delicious. He deserved the win. The field was really tough, and naming a winner just came down to the taste preferences of the three judges. It just as easily could have been fried chocolate or the fried margarita.I don't think Mark Zable's gross-out trademarked sideshow fried beer should have merited Best Taste honors, but who's to say Most Creative has to taste good? After all, the recipe for a great fair has always been part extremely beautiful plus part sickening sideshow. I, for one, am going to fried food myself into a carny coma.
Where will fair fried food go from here? Absent the Occupational Safety and Health Administration banning exploding grease from the Midway, it's doubtful there will be a return to the days of fresh watermelon and raw oysters. So that leaves room for ever more innovative fair-food dares. And I'm hoping it's fried hamsters. The trick will be figuring out how to keep those effers alive inside a waffle.