State Fair of Texas

For the People of the State Fair of Texas, Its Return Means More Than Fried Foods

The food court in the Tower Building is bustling again.
The food court in the Tower Building is bustling again. Kathy Tran
To say the State Fair of Texas is all about plowing through 6,700 calories in one afternoon is selling it short. Criminally so. As with many other things last year, we realized the true value of this dipped and fried event only after it was taken away from us.

2020 was the first time since World War II, and only the eighth time in its 134-year history, that the fair was canceled. In normal years, for 24 days straight, in addition to gluttony, thrill rides and grand champion steers, the State Fair of Texas is a financial generator. Each year it provides more than 7,000 seasonal jobs, 80% of which are filled locally.

Last year we spoke with Gladys Richardson, a South Dallas resident who has worked at the fair for 30 years. She’s raising her teenage grandson and has long relied on that supplemental income. Losing it was “devastating.”

The starting wage for the fair this year is $12.38 per hour and increases based on experience. It’s a nice pre-holiday bump for many. But last year for Richardson and many others we spoke with, it wasn’t just the loss in wages, they also missed the community connection.

“It’s something you really looked forward to,” Richardson said. “You don’t see any prejudice out there. If there is, they keep it to themselves because everybody is friends. Black, white, Spanish, you work with every race of people you can imagine, and you don’t have to worry about it. Everybody is everybody.”

click to enlarge Texas Pumpkin Poke Cake at the fair - KATHY TRAN
Texas Pumpkin Poke Cake at the fair
Kathy Tran
Fried Do-Gooders
Beyond the jobs the fair provides and that personal connection, there’s the money that is pumped back into the community. In 2020 the fair awarded $623,000 to 59 organizations in the southern sector of Dallas through grants, sponsorships, partnerships and program funding. In 2020, it incorporated a new grant category for racial and social justice aimed at active anti-racism education and fostering leadership for people of color through nonprofit organizations.

The Big Tex Scholarship Program continued in 2020 despite its largest fundraiser being canceled. More than 80 students at six Dallas ISD high schools in the Fair Park area received $6,000 scholarships, which are renewable each semester. Another 120 young people received livestock scholarships; two seasonal employees were also awarded scholarships. Since 1992, more than 2,700 students have received almost $14 million in scholarships.

We spent some time both this year and last talking to the people who work at the fair and a theme has emerged: The work can be long and hard, but they truly love it.

click to enlarge Kelton Perry has worked at the fair since he was in his early 20s. - KATHY TRAN
Kelton Perry has worked at the fair since he was in his early 20s.
Kathy Tran
Kelton Perry, 42, has worked at the fair for 20 years, the past five at Gate 1 where he scans tickets, the first interaction for many visitors to the fair. Perry went to South Oak High School, and when he’s not working at the fair, he works in the medical field. His button-down shirt is starched, shoes bright white. A big smile peeks out from behind his mask.

Perry says there’s more energy and excitement at his gate this year after last year’s hiatus. When the fair was canceled in 2020, it had a big impact on him financially, but he’s quick to jump past that, offering instead, “I just like meeting the people though, being out here and meeting everyone is great.”

He says he loves the job and particularly the people he works with at Gate 1. “It’s just exciting to work here for the State Fair of Texas,” he says.

click to enlarge Michelle Edwards operates the Highland Park Soda Fountain at the fair. - KATHY TRAN
Michelle Edwards operates the Highland Park Soda Fountain at the fair.
Kathy Tran
Michelle Edwards has operated the Highland Park Soda Fountain in the Tower Building for the past nine years. The original soda fountain — a 106-year old Dallas institution — shuttered in 2018, but for 24 days each year, it’s revived at the State Fair.

“We have a lot of regular customers who use to come into the store who come to see us now,” Edwards says. “And they’re excited to see us here. We have all our old recipes, our same cook is here, everything is the same.”

Edwards has three kids, one is a junior at the University of Texas, the other a senior in high school who works behind the counter when he’s not in school and a fourth-grader who “is running around here somewhere with my husband.”

Financially, Edwards says the fair has a huge impact for them, “It’s how we pay for our kids' college.” Being back this year with the COVID safety precautions in place gives the event a different feeling, a little eerie at times, but still there’s the same excitement, she says.

This year is particularly special for Edwards because they were nominated for a Big Tex Choice Award for their Texas Pumpkin Poke Cake, literally putting them on the map amongst the hundreds of other food options.

“Every year we come up with what we’re going to enter as a family, everyone participates, everyone tastes it. So it's really special for the whole family,” Edwards said.

click to enlarge Carol Burk has worked in guest relations for 45 years. - KATHY TRAN
Carol Burk has worked in guest relations for 45 years.
Kathy Tran
Carol Burk is in charge of the Fraternal Order of Potty Pointers (FOPP), a self-designation she's earned after working 45 years at the fair in guest relations.

Yes, the question she and her crew of about 70 get asked the most often at guest relations is “Where are the restrooms?” To which she extends her long slender arm, lifts a finger and with a smile as big as Big Tex himself and points the way.

There’s even a FOPP annual award, the golden potty prize. Burk paints a new toilet seat gold and gives it to a staff member who went above and beyond the call of duty. One year it went to a crew who gave her own jacket to a fairgoer who was cold. September weather can be like that.

“I love tradition,” Burk says on why she’s come back to work the fair for more than four decades. “I love seeing people having a good time, and I love being able to help them have a good time. Plus, it’s like a family out here. All of us are that way. Every department.”

After hearing the news that the fair was canceled in 2020, in one way Burk had a sense of relief. “With the situation with the COVID and so many people losing their lives, to have something like this become a super spreader like in 1918 when they had that parade and all of those people got the Spanish flu and died. So from that standpoint, it was the smart thing to do," Burk says.

Opening day this year was a little different, “aside from the challenges of all the little things you didn’t get done,” she likened it to the fair in 2001 just after Sept. 11.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen on that first day, and it was a huge day. And it was a phenomenal fair. I think that’s very similar to this,” Burk says.

click to enlarge Lupita Valeria is happy to see other vendors doing well after a year hiatus. - KATHY TRAN
Lupita Valeria is happy to see other vendors doing well after a year hiatus.
Kathy Tran
Lupita Valerio won’t stop smiling. Even though she’s 66 years old and has been on her feet since 5 a.m. and the sun has already sunk far below the horizon, leaving the giant Ferris wheel as the brightest object in the sky, she just won’t stop smiling.

Valerio, originally from Mexico, lives in San Antonio now. She’s worked at the fair for 26 years at her namesake stand, Lupita’s Gorditas. As she traveled north for this year’s fair, she fretted a bit. “My worry was that with what’s going on, are all my friends and other vendors OK? And it’s good to see they’re all OK,” she says, beaming.

She and her six crew members make fresh gorditas, grabbing chunks of masa from a large bowl with their fingers then shaping into balls before pressing them flat then frying. This way, they ensure their food is fresh all day long.

The schedule they keep for 24 days straight is as tough as Cowboys training camp. Valerio brings three co-workers from San Antonio with her to the fair and the other three live in Dallas. The four from out of town sleep in a trailer parked near the fair. Every morning they rise at 5 a.m. to go buy their supplies and food for the day then make their way to their booth on the Midway where they press, chop, fry and serve with a smile. Late in the evenings when the fair closes, they clean, stow away their kitchen and stumble back to the trailer for some shut-eye before starting all over again before the sun rises.

For 24 days, that’s their lives. And tiny Valerio, with blond hair pushing out from under her baseball cap, won’t stop smiling about it.

“I do other events. But they’ve all been canceled. That’s why I was so glad to be here,” Valerio says.

click to enlarge Gary Anderson runs the giant popcorn kettle at the fair. - KATHY TRAN
Gary Anderson runs the giant popcorn kettle at the fair.
Kathy Tran
Gary Anderson is the popcorn man across from the Chevrolet main stage. A giant kettle is the heart of his stand. It has a steampunk quality to it; the huge metal kettle is burnt, fried, scorched, clunky and makes odd noises. After it’s been filled with kernels it slowly erupts, eventually like the grand finale of a fireworks show.

Also in the popcorn tent is Richard Lewis, who lives in South Dallas and is in his 17th year working at the fair — the past seven with Anderson. He knows by sound when it's time to turn off the gas, lift the heavy lid and flip the popcorn out. He moves smooth and fast despite the heat and weight with the confidence of someone who does this very thing all day for 24 days.

Anderson, who is 68 and lives in Denton, won a coveted spot at the fair seven years ago; he’d spent eight prior years trying to get that spot. He travels around to some other events and fairs but says, “This is the biggest event in the United States, and to be a vendor here is the top of the top.”

In terms of the crowd size this year, Anderson says that opening day was the best opening day they’ve ever had. “People are just ready to get out, they’ve been cooped up and they’re ready to spend some money. They want their fair treats. So, they came at us in swarms.”

He says he’s heard this year is the crowd is projected to be a record turnout, “if the weather holds out.”

From the day he pulled into the parking lot through Oct. 17, Anderson says he likely won’t leave the fairgrounds. He works every day, has supplies delivered to him and retires to his RV after the fair closes (9 p.m. during the week and at 10 p.m. on the weekends). He crashes before getting up around 7:30 a.m. to start again. It's tiring, but he doesn't seem to mind.

“For 24 days, I can suck it up,” Anderson says with a smile.
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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.