An Englishman Provides Our Final Word on the State Fair: One Hero Passes, Another Enters
I would not like to meet the turkeys that gave up these legs.
Photos by Gavin Cleaver
I chose the saddest day of all to go the State Fair of Texas. The death of Big Tex (flame-grilled is the way he'd have wanted to go) cast a shadow over the whole event, which had Big Tex's now non-existent face on every piece of merchandise, every map, every stall, every advert, every building. When the twittersphere erupted with news and pictures on Friday afternoon, every workplace in Texas stopped. Our office crowded round a monitor in disbelief. My stepson says lessons were stopped briefly while they were all informed of the tragic news. No doubt the government are investigating -- perhaps a rogue Oklahoma freedom fighter is to blame.
I wore all black to commemorate Tex on my visit. I'm just trying to fit in. Big Tex would have applauded my task that day -- to eat as much fried food as possible or die trying. We arrived mid-afternoon, and I set to working my way down the stalls, in order, from my entrance. I am a brave man, on a noble quest, and I'm just sad I will be leaving my family behind at such a young age. Can I get a life insurance policy with a diet like this? I'm not sure it'll pay out. I have recently acquired health insurance, so it was clear more limits were going to be pushed here as I am no longer afraid of death. As if the usual BBQ gig wasn't bad enough, the pursuit of deep-fried perfection (or not) promised to add an extra dimension to the artery-clogging nature of my work, the addition of delicious batter.
Everything is bigger in Texas, obviously, including the propensity to die of heart disease, and, damn it, I am free to get this heart disease even if it kills me. I'm eating for freedom. The EU banned the sale of Lucky Charms and Mountain Dew when I was a child, leaving a hole in my childhood, albeit distinctly healthier teeth. Now I live in Texas, not only is nothing off the table, I am free to eat the unhealthiest thing I can possibly imagine. If anyone's seen anything unhealthier than a deep-fried cheesecake covered in icing sugar, I am all ears, although after Saturday I will need some time to recover before I can even consider something being fried again. I'm going to steam my bacon from now on.
Let me write a note here for British people who might be confused. The State Fair of Texas is an annual event dedicated to celebrating Texas. That much may seem obvious. How Texans have chosen to celebrate Texas, though, is something more of a leap in logic. While the expected hats, boots, trucks and cowboys abound, much of the State Fair has been dedicated to the glory of deep-fried everything. You can't even begin to imagine the extent of things they've deep-fried. They've taken foods you've never heard of to start with and deep-fried them just for the sake of novelty. How placing battered food into boiling hot oil connects to the heart of Texas' self-identity isn't entirely clear to me. What is clear to me is the overwhelming emphasis on any and all food being made more unhealthy just for shits and giggles. A further note -- Big Tex is (was) a 50-foot-tall cowboy, 60 years young, who waved at all the entrants to the State Fair and died an unfortunate, seemingly electrical, death last week.
With that, on with a tale so simultaneously fantastical and mundane that it will surely become European folklore while being dismissed by Texans in the comments telling me they ate twice as much and that I am a tiny girl with pigtails.
The typical Texas pickup truck -- economy-sized version.
Aboard the "fun bus" (neither fun nor a bus) from a car park seemingly positioned closer to Houston, wife Richard and I began to discuss how this article was going to go. We agreed, given that the Observer had given me an advance, that I was going to have to pay back big in A) article size and B) pain. I had no idea how many tokens to get (indeed, I had forgotten entirely about any sort of token system) and bought what could essentially be termed an investment in the State Fair, rather than a sensible amount for a family day out. I half expected a stock certificate to print out at the end. I was committed now. I can't get any of that money back. It's death or glory, and either way I was going to regret it.
Chicken-fried bacon -- an innocuous first step on the road to hell.
I started as I meant to continue, with the first ridiculous sounding fried thing I laid my eyes upon -- chicken-fried bacon. While ostensibly more sensible than the Inception-based nightmare that is the popular chicken-fried chicken, it's still battered and deep-fried bacon. I admit to knowing nothing about "chicken frying." It would be lovely if they got a chicken to be the chef, but I imagine the actual process is probably more painful for a chicken than just working long hours in a hot kitchen.
With a little bit of ranch dressing, chicken-fried bacon is a perfect opener -- crispy enough that it's not really there, salty enough to make you want more, and more important, bacon. It was gone in a flash, and accompanied with another first for me, Big Red. A seemingly popular drink in Texas, Big Red is much like synthetic bubblegum coloured, for some reason, bright red, and then carbonated. It was horrific, like a car crash of sugar and things that shouldn't be liquified. It was at this point that I realised that actually, Texas is the United States' Scotland -- a country that loves deep frying and has a soda that holds special significance, in Scotland's case Irn Bru. Irn Bru, which according to its marketing is made "from girders," is similarly terrible, although not as easy to describe as Big Red. I'm not sure what it is, apart from bright orange and part of the cause of Scotland's obesity epidemic.
Richard, who was taking notes, had apparently decided to write some sort of Captain Scott's log as we were going around ("Weather excellent. Mild thirst.") but abandoned this as soon as we saw her favourite event, pig racing. All that's written in her notes at this point is "PIG FUCKING RACES!" and a heart. What a girl.
Fried Frito pie -- you have to be a native Texan to have a clue as to what this one is about.
The next stall held three appealingly stupid ideas, so we went all out. Fried Mexican firecrackers, a kind of deep-fried cheese with jalapeños and bits of meat inside, fried Frito pie, at which I could not even hazard a guess (how on earth does one make a pie from chips. Help me out here, Texas), and fried cheesecake. All at once. The firecrackers were delicious, and not even that spicy, a short roll of cheese and peppers in a hard case of, well, fat. The Frito pie I am not sure about. I have no idea what was going on. It was like eating a ball of heavily flavoured earth, so I'm guessing by the texture it involved ground beef, only someone had decided to make it taste like crisps. Who had that idea first? Did someone retire off the back of that wheeze?
Fried cheesecake, though, is the meal of champions. A long pocket of batter with a melted, liquidy cheesecake inside, it was just amazing. It made moving to Texas worthwhile by itself -- you won't see this being served up on a British main street any time soon (apart from maybe in the parts of Scotland that already serve deep-fried Mars and Snickers). Richard asked me if I thought it was good, and I replied that was like asking if the moon landing was fairly impressive. It was actually a bit like a better-executed British bakery favourite, the custard Slice. (Google it.)
Fried cheesecake, a bit of bliss in an over-fried day.
Still reeling from the earth-shaking quality of the cheesecake, we stumbled to a stall that appeared to be serving deep-fried drinks. Further down the fried rabbit hole. We got a fried margarita and a fried latte, ostensibly to quench Richard's mild thirst but really because the idea of a fried margarita is beyond my imagining. The actual method, a funnel cake soaked in margarita, then put in a cup with a margarita mix poured over it, wasn't as exciting as I had hoped. I'm not sure what I had hoped for -- perhaps an edible margarita glass, with margarita inside, entirely deep-fried. I'm not sure about the feasibility of this but I do know that deep-fried glass would have tasted better. As for the latte, it was just pieces of batter with coffee ice cream. NEXT.
The award-winning fried jambalaya.
Ah, fried jambalaya. The winner of this year's State Fair Insanity Awards, I was about to pass it up after seeing the line, before Richard reminded me of my commitment to the good people of Dallas. What would a fried food review be without this year's champion, no matter how dubious the honour of winning said award might be? So I lined up and I lined up, and after a cigarette that I felt was probably a healthier decision than this entire day out, I got my jambalaya, a tiny ball of batter and an onion ring. It was absolutely lovely, a happy savoury after the margarita and latte, the rice and other assorted tidbits perfectly preserved inside the batter, and just spicy enough. I'm not sure about the onion ring - stepson Lewis managed to extract the entire onion from the ring with a single bite, leaving just a sad, hollow ring of batter, devoid of purpose or future.
The fried "margarita" inflicts all the pain of the real thing, but none of the pleasure.
Needing a break at this point, we watched some old people dance while dressed in bizarre outfits, a tradition in all cultures, and then went over to the Outlaw Grill, whose sole aim seemed to be to serve parts of animals larger than anyone else. At the State Fair, this is not a simple task. I passed on a $10 turkey leg the size of my head, mainly on the grounds that it wasn't also deep-fried. What have I become? A man who objects to things because they weren't as unhealthy as I hoped? I needed to get away, to rest somewhere away from people and away from food. By this point, my vision was slightly blurred, I was having the odd tingly pain, and I no longer believed in the Democrats' ability to run this country.
Next up, after said break (and a sugary lemonade to bring me back round) was the deep-fried tres leches cake. I don't even know what tres leches cake is supposed to be, beyond a kind of wet cake that somehow holds itself together. This was essentially the final straw. Even though it was freakin' delicious, I could no longer sustain the level of performance I had been putting in so far. After finishing it I felt physically ill, no comment on the cake but more a comment on my ridiculous idea for an article. This was going to be a stumble to the finish line now, an uncomfortable blur of things I shouldn't be doing on top of things I shouldn't have done. The cake was less the straw that had broken the camel's back and more the cinderblock that had broken my stomach and my will to live.
What part of a pig provides the wing? It's better not to ask.
Onto the logical fallacy of a fried pork wing -- unless pigs actually can fly, I think it is safe to assume that this is a part of a pig so wrong we actually aren't allowed to know what part it is. I accompanied it with a Shiner Bock. May I take a second here to praise the glory of Shiner Bock. I order it all the time when I'm out. It is a default choice, it is extremely tasty, very cheap, and it is possible to drink so much of it in one sitting that you magically transport yourself to the small town of Shiner, Texas, and wake up, half-naked, worshiping a brewery where magical processes occur.
The fried pork wing was intensely tasty, the small part of it I could manage. By this point I was half-slumped, relying on my family for transport and envisioning a world where all that was available to eat were vegetables. Richard ate most of it. She thought it was the nicest thing she ate all day, and said it was juicy and delicious, rather than just deep-fried ridiculousness. At this point, her and Lewis split off to go on rides, and as I was in no fit state to go on rides, I resolved to eat one last thing before retiring to hospital. My friend and I went off to get deep-fried mac and cheese sliders, another concoction too ridiculous to get anywhere else. I simply thrust the tokens into his hand, and sat, dazed, against a tree as what I assumed to be a hallucination of a nightmarish vision of Ronald McDonald on a brightly coloured float went past. I couldn't manage any of the mac and cheese slider. I wasn't sure I could ever manage any food ever again. My breathing was shallow, and my heartbeat was fast. He tells me it was quite a subtle taste, overpowered by the slider itself, and would have been better on its own.
Note: A fried latte will NOT -- in no manner whatsover -- improve the hangover caused by a fried margarita.
I didn't care. I needed to get out. We brazenly flouted the queuing laws I and my countrymen are so renowned for and hopped onto the "fun bus" (neither fun nor a bus, especially not now I had jumped the line) while sad people who had not noticed the gap in the fence hollered things I couldn't make out, but that I assumed were compliments on my foresight, grace and speed.
Richard wants to deep-fry a turkey for Thanksgiving, because Walmart pointed out it might be a good idea. I will never fry anything ever again, Lord, I promise. Just let me live another couple of years, and I'll only eat the bounty of your creation. I have made some terrible mistakes, and a deep-fried margarita is right up there with the worst of them. That's like eight sins at once. I wasn't even religious until I started hallucinating corporate mascots after a pork wing.
Praise Big Tex, may he live at your right hand forever, and praise the deep-fryer, without which Texas would have nothing to do once every fall. Most of all, thank you Texas, for all the freedom I now have to aggressively kill myself. I kind of like it here. I shall stay as long as either the U.S. government lets me, or as long as my heart keeps beating, which I suspect is not hugely long on either count.
The view from the Englisman's eyes as waves of Texas fried goodness washed through his brain.
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