Wednesday, October 5, 2011
How the State Fair of Texas’ fried food thing got to be so big
A brief history of.
That's when the Big Tex Choice awards premiered, and now they overshadow all else. They've not only brought the Texas State Fair international attention, they've transformed state fair snacking into an activity that's both more sedentary and more social.
State fair fare used to be "food on a stick" that you ate while you walked around. Now, it's food you share. And while fair food has always pushed the novelty envelope, it's lately turned into an episode of "extreme eating," with taste a distant second. Reactions to last year's Fried Beer were mixed at best; this year's Fried Bubblegum is emerging as a must-try that you may not finish.
This six-year journey to become the "Fried Food Capital of Texas" -- trademarked, no less -- was not unplanned, and it started with Fried Twinkies, says fair spokeswoman Sue Gooding.
"From 1942, the corny dog ruled at the fair," she says. "But then fried Twinkies came in and gained fame. After the 2004 Fair, fair president Errol McKoy brought a group of us together and said, 'We’re getting a lot of buzz about fried Twinkies and Oreos and candy bars. What can we do to get even more interest in food?'"
No one can resist the drama of a contest, and the Big Tex choice awards were born.
The first year, 2005, came and went uneventfully. The fair that year had an Elvis theme, which vendor Abel Gonzales exploited with his winning fried peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. One judge was an Elvis impersonator. But the ceremony drew only one camera.
"One of the judges was a weatherman from Channel 11, so I think a Channel 11 cameraman showed up," Gooding says. "We thought if we invited somebody from the media, they'd probably bring a camera."
But Gonzales' entry the next year gave the awards the bump they envisioned. It was 2006's Fried Coke: Coke-flavored batter fried into nuggets and topped with cola syrup. Gonzales won Most Creative and started the first wave of publicity.
"That was the first one where everyone went, 'How did he do that?'" Gooding says. "Fried Coke is the one that first accomplished what we were looking for. It was an oddity. And if you look at the Most Creative winners since then, I think those are the ones people remember. The thing that sets them apart is where people end up going, 'OK, how do you do that?'"
"The entries do not have to be fried, but it quickly became all about frying," Gooding says. (This year's contestants included the Walking Taco, a non-fried item.)
As the contest solidified, Gooding came up with an idea she'd seen at the Minnesota fair, of a T-shirt listing all of the entries. They sold out instantly. People came in groups and wore the shirts together, checking off each vendor.
"We noticed that it was becoming a social event, where several friends would come together to try the new food and share it," she said. And that's when they noticed they didn't have enough tables and chairs.
"So we built areas with large umbrellas, and put it in strategic areas around the grounds," she says. "I was shocked one day when I opened an email and it was someone complaining about how we didn't have enough seating. I thought it was humorous. For 30 years, we hadn't had much seating, and now people noticed there were places to sit, and all of those places were taken. We had built an expectation that we should have more places. And we've had to add more seating areas every year."
Their strategy on judge candidates has changed, too. No more media.
"The first few years, we always invited someone from the media, typically a recognizable name," Gooding says. "But we started getting requests from the media present asking that we not have someone from the media be a judge. If it was a competing station, it made it difficult for them to capture all the judges because they needed to avoid filming a competing personality."
The 2011 judging drew 40 media entities, and coverage has extended around the world. Fried Bubblegum hit CNN, Huffington Post, and media sites in the U.K. Multiple-winner vendor Abel Gonzales has been on Rachael Ray, The Today Show, and The View. The Big Tex awards have made it into Jay Leno's monologue and been the subject of David Letterman's "Top 10" List.
"It's gotten to where you turn on the TV and see it on Oprah or Larry the Cable Guy coming through the fair eating, or Andrew Zimmern from the Travel Channel," Gooding says. "It really has become a media frenzy."
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