Featured image:(fried.chicken) http://www.foodandwine.com
The advent of Concessionairs and elaborate food vendors
State Fair of Texas’ smorgasbord illustrates fair food’s evolution
If it can be fried, it’s been tried at the State Fair of Texas.
Twinkies. Oreos. Candy bars. Cookie dough. Butter. Meatballs. Lettuce. Green beans. Peaches. Pralines. Pecan pie. Jelly beans. Macaroni and cheese. Bacon. Coke. Latte. Beer. Margarita.
We’ve come a long way from when popcorn and cotton candy were the fair food headliners.
Pity the hamburger. You poor peanuts. Hot dog, you’re not so hot. We’re just not into you anymore – at least not at the fair.
Food has been a featured attraction ever since the State Fair opened in 1886.
People need to eat, after all.
But, through the years, fair fare has evolved.
Since 2005, there’s been a fried food explosion, thanks to a contest that honors the top new foods.
These days, food is a main reason why many people head to the fair, which opens Friday at Fair Park.
The fair’s food frenzy is reflective of a food-oriented culture that has a greater appreciation of food, said Christi Erpillo, a veteran fair concessionaire. Think about the scores of food programs on TV.
“Food itself has taken on a whole new role,” she said. “Fair food has become more interesting, more intriguing. It’s a finer food.” From simple fare to showmanship
As long as people have gathered to attend public events, food vendors have been there to serve them.
They sold their goodies at the Roman Coliseum, at Medieval fairs and at the Globe Theatre during Shakespeare’s time, said Lynne Olver, editor of The Food Timeline, a website that explores the origins of a smorgasbord of foods.
“Any place where there’s money to be made and people to be fed, there will be food vendors,” she said.
During the 1880s and 1890s, the early years of the State Fair of Texas, foods included sausage sandwiches, fried chicken, fried pork chops, hard-boiled eggs and oysters, said Nancy Wiley, a fair consultant.
At first, church groups and civic organizations sold food for fundraisers, but then commercial enterprises took over, Wiley said.
Last year, fair visitors spent about $26 million on food and amusement rides. Officials say the fair usually gets 23.5 percent of the gross sales from food and beverage concessionaries.
Many fair food vendors generate sales in the low tens of thousands of dollars. Some, though, can bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars, officials said. Then there are the Fletchers, who sell more than 500,000 corny dogs – more than $2 million worth – during the fair.
Fair food as we know it took off in 1904, thanks to the World’s Fair in St. Louis. The event popularized several foods, including the hot dog. Those treats spread to state fairs, including Texas.
Fair food would change forever in 1942, when the corny dog made its debut at the Texas fair. Fast forward a couple of decades and Belgian waffles arrived on the scene. Then, by the early ’80s, funnel cake.
Over the past decade, the fair entered its fried-food era, thanks to fried Oreos, Twinkies and candy bars.
But fried food started getting wild in 2005, when the fair launched the Big Tex Choice Awards for the top new foods.
Combine imaginative food vendors and a public that’s at the fair to escape reality, and you have a recipe for fried food success, Olver said.
“The concessionaires are really showmen,” she said. “They want to outdo each other. They want to do something a little bit different. It’s a matter of experimenting. You have deep-fried Oreos. If you can deep fry an Oreo, why not a Nutter-Butter. It goes from there.” Competitive cottage industry
Dishes that win the Big Tex Choice competition attract endless media interest, and the stranger the item, the better.
When Jake Levy won a Big Tex award for his Deep Fried Latte in 2007, his family received requests from media outlets worldwide. This year, he’s serving the Deep Fried Frozen Margarita, one of the finalists in this year’s contest.
“If you’re the ‘it’ food at the fair, you are at the pinnacle,” Levy said.
Some years, foods that win Big Tex honors generate more than $100,000 in sales – sometimes, much more.
No one has capitalized more on the fried food mania than Abel Gonzales. He’s won Big Tex awards for Deep Fried Butter, Texas Fried Cookie Dough, Fried Coke and a Fried Peanut Butter, Jelly and Banana Sandwich.
He’s done so well that he quit his job.
“It’s not something I planned,” he said of his successful creations. “If you start thinking, ‘Ooh, I’ve got to start thinking of something bigger and better,’ you’re not going to come up with anything at all.”
In recent years, however, vendors have become much more competitive – and secretive, Levy said. Mark Zable has shrouded his Fried Beer, a Big Tex winner this year, in secrecy. He’s applied for a patent and trademark.
“We used to call each other at the beginning and say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about doing this,'” Levy said. “It’s become a briefcase and handcuff deal. We’re always trying to outdo what we’ve done. It’s bigger than the State Fair of Texas.”
How far does this food craziness go? No one’s sure.
“There will be some brilliant concessionaire who will ride the next wave and you’ll look at this 10 years from now and you’ll be like, ‘That was the deep-fried era,'” Olver said.
“You’re going to have things like corn dogs … that will survive as classics. The rest of them are going to be relegated to that big closet called food fads.”
While this year’s fair just started, the vendors are already brainstorming entries for next year. They’re in their kitchens, experimenting, frying up a storm.
What are they planning?
They’re not saying. A FAIR FOOD EVOLUTION
When it comes to food, the State Fair of Texas sure has packed it in through the years. Since the first fair in 1886, food has been a star attraction. Here’s a sampling of what’s been served through the years: 1880s and 1890s
Church groups and social clubs serve hot meals, cold lunches and desserts. Items include fried chicken, pork chops, potatoes and vegetables. There are sausage sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs and raw oysters, as well as popcorn, peanuts, ice cream and watermelon. Ice cream on a stick called Hokey-Pokey and Concord grapes are available, too. 1900s and 1910s
1900: Wienerwurst and hamburger steak
1901: A Mexican restaurant opens.
1912: Peanuts and hamburgers, lemonade and ice cream cones reign supreme.
1916: The Mothers’ Council of Dallas proposes a ban on liquor sales at the fair. The ban stays in place until 1933. 1920s and 1930s
1922: Barbecued “chevron’ – or goat – is featured.
1931: “An epidemic of smiles swept over the ranks of hamburger, candy, soda pop and souvenir vendors Tuesday as the high school students invaded the grounds in wave after wave.”
1932: “There were hungry kids, young and old, feeding on hot dogs or stick candy, drinking apple cider, eating apples on a stick. Depression? Fun is always new and never old … and there is no depression in laughter.”
1936: Fritos are introduced. 1940s and 1950s
1942: The corny dog debuts. Jack’s French Frys arrive a few years later.
1950: “Concessionaires were moving in supplies which will amount to 200,000 candied applies, two carloads of potatoes, 50,000 cones of cotton candy, over two million hamburgers and hot dogs, a million and a half sacks of popcorn, ten million bottled drinks and 50,000 gallons of ice cream.” 1960s and 1970s
1964: Belgian waffles arrive. Also, French wines, cheeses and meals are available.
1972: “Pizzas, Poor Boys and Pink Things compete with chili, chicken and cheeseburgers confront the customer as he threads his way through a maze of stands.”
1974: “A hungry person can choose from country sausage, Western stew, hot dogs, hamburgers, tacos, nachos, beans, french fries, skillet potatoes and German sausage.”
1977: New items include shrimp, egg rolls and the Texas Grinder, a pressed sourdough sandwich filled with beef and cheese and dipped in butter.
1980s and 1990s
Early ’80s: Funnel cakes arrive.
Funnel Cake (Pinterest)
Chicken and waffle cone (reddit.com)
1989: The Waf-A-Taco, a waffle cone filled with taco fixings, makes an appearance.
1992: Fairgoers can eat “at least four kinds of sausage, candy and caramel apples, boiled corn, shrimp, teriyaki steak, a bunch of frozen confections, and something called a Cajun stick, all served k-bob style. Hickory Farms even sports something called a ‘beef pop,’ a round slice of beef sausage presented in lollipop-fashion.”
1996: Jamaican food booth opens. 2000s
Early 2000s: All sorts of deep-fried food debuts at the fair, including fried Oreos and candy bars.
2002: “Fried Twinkies are the new junk food delight – or not, depending on your taste. … They’re deep- fried versions of the yellow cream-filled cake. About 30,000were sold at the California State Fair. Are fried Ho-Hos next?”
2005: The fair launches Big Tex Choice Awards, ushering in a new fried-food era.
Source: source: food fairs
SOURCES: State Fair of Texas; The Great State Fair of Texas: An Illustrated History; Dallas Morning News research