Christi Erpillo’s life has been a bit of a whirlwind since winning this year’s Big Tex Choice Awards at the State Fair of Texas. Her Holy Moly Carrot Cake Roly took top honors, imparting a great deal of responsibility to the fair vender. Winners can be expected to sell nearly 50,000 servings of their creations to fried food fans in the 24 days the fair is open.
“It’s a big operation,” Erpillo says. Her 90 employees on the payroll work across three shifts, and then there are vendor negotiations leading up to the event. Erpillo says she’ll make the shell for her Roly only with Pepperidge Farm bread and she prefers a specific carrot cake from her vendor Ben E. Keith. While the rest of Dallas wonders whether or not they remembered to lock the front door as they try to sleep, Erpillo wonders if the 70 cases of carrot cakes she ordered will get her through the entire event, if she should charge $6 or $7 and what will happen if she runs out of panko?
As a lifelong fair worker, Erpillo is no stranger to the logistical challenges levied on vendors serving at the fair. Erpillo worked her first fair when she was 17, and won her first Big Tex Choice Award in 2009 with Deep Fried Peaches and Cream, selling more than 4 tons of peach slices. She says state fair food runs in her blood, and that she thinks about state fair food every day of the year.
“If you’re a food concessionaire, your mind never shuts off,” Erpillo says, describing an endless search for the next potential winner. “You’re constantly thinking, 'I wonder how I could fry that.'"
Structurally, the Roly is actually a riff on her deep-fried grilled cheese sandwich, which sold nearly 20,000 units as a runner-up in 2013. Knowing that bread holds up well in the deep-fryer, Erpillo adapted the technique to her favorite dessert, carrot cake, and her Roly was born.
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“What we are trying to do is protect whatever we are frying,” Erpillo says. The bread for the Roly is pounded out and smeared with cream cheese before moist carrot cake, raisins and carrots are folded into the roll. The rolls are breaded in a mixture of panko, graham crackers, cinnamon and nutmeg and then flash fried to keep them from soaking up too much grease. Erpillo plans to make the rolls fresh daily, adding another layer of complexity to her process. Some vendors process, freeze and stockpile their deep-fried creations leading up to the event.
#Concessionairelife is more than just culinary logistics, especially if you’re a Big Tex Choice winner. This week, Erpillo picked her 89-year-old mother Fernie Winter up at 6:50 a.m. and drove her to the local KLUV studio for a live radio appearance. Winter is known for first bringing the funnel cake to the fair. She makes a similar claim on nachos.
Together they mark nearly 50 years of clogging arteries at the fair, and while Erpillo quietly hopes someone else in the family will step up to maintain the tradition, she admits she’s hooked. “I can’t imagine not doing it,” she says.