Last week, the State Fair of Texas announced the eight finalists in the Big Tex Choice Awards, seven of which were deep-fried. The only dish to make the cut that didn’t first emerge from a bath in triglycerides was a margarita infused with bacon, and that’s not really food.
The field of fried things was hardly a surprise. Over the past 11 years that the contest has been held at the State Fair, only two dishes have made it into the finals without first spending some time in the fry-bath. A white chocolate bread pudding made the cut in 2005, and the Walking Taco, a portable take on Frito pie, received a nod as a finalist in 2011. Neither entry won the final award.
The never-ending procession of deep fried concessions can seem a little tiresome, especially to local food writers charged with covering the event every year. In 2013, Alice Lassaude (a woman known to mainline doughnut grease) proclaimed the deep fried shit show “sad,” and hoped the competition would change moving forward. The following year, the only dish that wasn’t fried was a beer, but even that was based on funnel cake — yet another iconic fried food of the fair.
So why so much grease? Each year the finalists are chosen from a field of about 50 contestants by a team of volunteer judges willing to subject themselves to days of back-to-back fair food evaluation. The judges sample each entry and then evaluate them according to attributes defined by fair officials. Dishes are evaluated based on appearance, creativity, taste, fairness of the serving size, whether or not the dish would leave a customer satisfied and other variables including whether the judges would spend their own fair tickets on the item. None of the metrics include greasiness, crunchiness of crust or level of golden-brown or deliciousness, and still the finalists are overwhelmingly fried.
Some of the dishes that don't make the cut are not fried. This year, pulled pork layered with mashed potatoes in an effort mimic an ice cream sundae made it into the competition. Suddenly deep fried beer sounds like a great idea. Judges quickly dismissed the Pulled Pork Parfait.
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Fried or not, fair food will likely never resemble health food. “What makes a dish a fair food is very difficult to describe,” says Carey D. Risinger, when asked about the domination of fried foods at the fair. The senior vice president of food, beverage and retail described the three-week event like it was a food memory utopia — “a visual overload of sights, sounds and smells,” and also “a five- to six-hour vacation from everyday lives.” It’s that getaway feeling that makes less flamboyant dishes a tougher sell.
“People ask why diet food has never worked well in a fair-festival environment,” Risinger says. He claims that many fair-goers are searching for the unusual. He uses the term “giggle foods,” to describe a customer’s reaction as they bite into something absurd like deep-fired butter. On Monday, he says, they can get back to the salad and a dry chicken breast to make up for things.
So on top of a fair-goer's desire for an excuse to let loose for a day, everything is fried at the fair because the fried stuff is what sold last year, creating the most pleasant food memories that can be capitalized on moving forward. It’s a never-ending cycle of this year’s bubbling oil riding on waves of last year’s grease-laden nostalgia.
Entrants have little incentive to change the status quo because there's a lot of money riding on the Big Tex Choice competition. Attendants seek out winners, and some go as far as attempting to try each of the finalists. Sales can be eye-opening and artery-closing — averaging 50,000-70,000 units each year. Why would anyone attempt something other than fried food with money like that on the table?