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The State Fair of Texas

So yesterday I experienced my very first State Fair of Texas, which is a bit silly since I’ve lived in Texas my whole life, and lived in the same city as the fair for 15 years.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve experienced my fair share of Fairs.  As a farm kid growing up, every year you could find me and my little brother at the West Texas Fair, presenting our sheep in the livestock show.  But the Fair experience, for us, involved 5am alarms, washing sheep in the frigid dawn hours, our fingers turning blue and losing all sensation, hours of holding the sheep in an endless line of other nervous teenagers, hoping the judges will like either our sheep or our showman skills…followed by the auctioning off of our sheep, loading them onto a truck, and us watching our pets disappear to an unknown fate.

So, suffice it to say, “Fairs” were never something I got excited about.

But with all the hype about the food scene at the State Fair of Texas, and under pressure from friends who love going each year, I gave in and joined them for the Fair’s opening day yesterday.

Visiting the Fair is not an inexpensive affair.

The normal admission cost is $16 per person ($12 for kids and seniors), plus $15 for parking.  Just to get you in the gate.  Of course we took public transportation both ways ($4 per person) and happened to go on a day when you can bring a can of SODA for the food pantry to get $5 admission.

First of all, why is the charity food pantry collecting SODA???  I think it must have been some marketing scam by Coca Cola.  Luckily, among the list of “sodas” that could get you in for $2 were bottles of Nestle water, so we brought water instead.

This lowered our total entry cost to $9 per person, including transit.  Still a bit steep, in my opinion, for admission to a place where everything inside costs extra money; but the State Fair of Texas is supposed to be the PINNACLE of State Fair experiences, so I was willing to part with $9.

Like any fair, the event includes everything from cooking competitions to livestock shows to local business demonstrations to parades, to an auto show, to lots and lots and lots of food.

Hoping to get an “authentic” experience, I donned a cap and giant sunglasses so that my friends would be spared being stopped every half hour for me to take pictures with MasterChef fans.  That was a good idea, because it seemed that EVERY time I took off my sunglasses, people spotted me.  I even got dragged into an interview with Channel 11.  Coincidentally, the reporter at the fair was the same reporter who interviewed me inside my kitchen when I was appearing on the Rachael Ray Show’s So You Think You Can Cook back in 2007, and she recognized me.  (Perhaps with a little sneaky assistance from my friend Jacques!)  During the interview, a VERY drunk man was screaming “YOU GOT ROBBED!” from a few feet away.

On another occasion, a lady was walking backwards away from a building, trying to get a photo, and she walked right into me, turned around to apologize, and then her face lit up and she said, “It’s YOU!  I LOVE YOU!”  It was very sweet.

I was primarily at the fair to experience this legacy of unconventional fried foods for which the state fair is famous.  It started with deep-fried Twinkies and Snickers bars about a decade ago, and has now progressed to the ridiculous heights of deep fried butter, fried beer, and fried bubble gum.  (I couldn’t bring myself to try any of those.)

But I did try 4 of the award-winning deep fried dishes from this year.  The buffalo-chicken-in-a-flapjack was a strip of chicken breast marinated in buffalo sauce, dipped in pancake batter, rolled in jalapeno bread crumbs, and deep fried, served with pancake syrup.  It won “best taste” in the awards this year.

Not my cup of tea, to be honest.  Perhaps I could improve it, if I tried, but there are so precious few applications when I approve of deep-frying, I don’t really feel like this deserves it.  Basically all this is is buffalo chicken inside a wrapper, you could easily turn this into a taco with a corn tortilla and it would be tastier as well as healthier.  Strike one.  $6 down.

Next came the Green Goblin, a hot pickled cherry pepper stuffed with chicken and guacamole, battered and deep fried.  I’m going to admit…this is the one I was actually excited about, because it sounded intriguing.  Unfortunately, the acid from the pickled pepper overwhelmed ALL the flavors of the filling, so it just tasted like hot vinegar.  What this is, really, is a modified chile relleno, which consists of a poblano pepper stuffed with cheese and other fillings, breaded and pan fried.  The use of the pickled cherry pepper is intriguing, but I’d have to choose a milder pickle, or soak the pickled peppers in water for a few days to leach out some of the acid before proceeding.  Or, better yet, just start with a fresh cherry pepper, cold smoke it for a couple of hours, stuff it with guac and chicken and cheese, and charcoal-grill it over high temp for a few minutes.  Now THAT would be good!  Another $6 down.

Luckily I found a stand serving Real Ale’s Lost Gold IPA, a Texas brew that is actually astoundingly good, to cleanse my pallet before proceeding.  $6 down.  And another $6 down, because you can never have just one Lost Gold IPA.

So the tally is currently $33 for my state fair experience, and I’ve had a couple of bite-sized appetizers and 2 beers.

We took a break from sampling to watch Farmer Bob’s pumpkin carving demonstration.  His carving skills far surpass his public speaking skills, but I could sit there and watch that guy carve giant pumpkins for hours.  He’s incredibly talented!

And I’m jealous of his seemingly endless source of 300-pound pumpkins to carve!!!  I was hoping to grow some giant pumpkins in my garden this fall, but with my post-MasterChef schedule being so crazy, I just didn’t have time.  It takes quite a lot of interaction between plant and farmer to get a 300-pound pumpkin.

Next we visited the animal barns.  Welcoming us outside the pig barn was Boris, a 1200 pound Hampshire boar.  People were gawking at this massive pig like it was a freak, but the truth is that if you let a pig live long enough, it will get this big!  Virtually all pigs are raised for meat, so they’re not allowed to live their natural lifespan and reach their natural size.  Boris was happily napping so we couldn’t get any good photos of him with people in the background as a size comparison.  Seeing him really made me miss raising pigs.  They’re such intelligent and funny creatures.

Then we strolled the pig barns and watched the oinkers getting baths and snoozing in fragrant cedar chip beds.  Then we wandered over to the goat barn and saw some truly adorable baby dwarf goats, not much bigger than a full-grown Chihuahua.

Now, I have a soft spot in my heart for goats.  There is no creature on earth with more personality than an adult goat, and no baby animal more soft and lovable than a kid goat.  I absolutely cannot WAIT to have goats on my farm in Hawaii.  I find their milk to be more delicious than cow’s milk, and it can be used to produce an almost endless array of hard and soft cheeses, as well as an incredibly complex yogurt called kefir.

Then it was time for the pig races.  If you’ve never seen a piglet race, you haven’t lived!  These adorable little oinkers were dashing around the track, hoping to win the grand prize: an oreo cookie.  We watched 3 races, and each time our piglet won!  Great fun.

Whether I was ready or not, it was time for more food.  Next door to the pig barn was the Oktoberfest tent, where we found Han’s Kraut Balls, a mix of German sausage, sauerkraut, and mustard, rolled into little balls and deep fried.  This was probably the most appetizing of the savory fried foods I tasted at the fair, but not something I’d eat a basket of.  One was enough.  And so salty I had to head back to the beer tent for some more Lost Gold IPA.  $11 more down the hole.

Someone suggested dessert was in order, so we started with something called a Pineapple Whip, a non-fairy, fat-free soft-serve dessert with the flavor of pineapple.  It was actually quite tasty, though I’m always suspicious of what chemicals have been added to a non-dairy, fat free soft serve to make it that creamy!  The purveyor said we could only find Pineapple Whip at Dole’s farm in Hawaii, or the Texas State Fair, but a cursory Googling shows it’s apparently quite popular at Disneyworld, Disneyland, and dozens of cafes and diners across the country.  Still, it was probably the single most delicious thing I ate at the fair.  (Note…it was NOT deep fried.)

$3 down.

One last fried dish had been mentioned to us by an inside source as a “Don’t Miss.”  That was the fried Autumn Pie, some puff pastry filled with pumpkin, cream cheese, and spices, deep fried, and rolled in cinnamon and sugar.  It was definitely the most scrumptious fried thing I ate at the fair, hands down.  Again, not something I’d be able to eat an entire serving of, but a couple of bites were delightful.  I heard people around me saying, “Man this is GOOD but it’s not outrageous enough to win.”

Such a shame…if the fried food only stands a chance of winning if it’s off-the-wall ridiculous, it’s a competition of the inane, not a merit-based contest.

Another $6 down.

Then it was time for the Illuminations Night Show, a “spectacular” display of lights, fountains, and fire.  It was pretty good, honestly, and I’ll admit that the Texas-patriotic segment made me cry and be proud to be a Texan and realize that the whole ridiculously over-inflated Texas-Pride thing actually has shaped my identity, having lived my entire life here.  I do love Texas.  It’s a great place to live.

Of course, the show was intended to inspire patriotism in our country, and 95% of the images were of fighter jets, tanks, explosions, and men and women in combat.

At the risk of stirring up animosity, I feel like I have to say something here.

Is our country’s military power the thing that truly makes our country great, worthy of pride and respect and admiration?  Please note that I’m NOT talking about the men and women who serve our country in uniform.  They are all heroes.

AS ARE our doctors and scientists, the people who innovate technology, our police and firefighters and medics, our public servants.  And most importantly, our TEACHERS.

I get annoyed when patriotic displays focus so entirely on military strength.  Is it truly through our military power that we have become “great?”  Or is it the wisdom of our founding fathers, intellectuals, all of them, who designed a Constitution and a governing system that still mostly functions today with very little modification across 250 years?  Is it our spirit of encouraging artistic and intellectual creativity, which has given birth to many of the best inventions the world has ever seen?

I realize these are images that are more challenging to capture than a plane dropping a smart bomb.  But I am ready for a patriotic display that shows the things that I believe truly make our country great.  It pulls me out of the moment when the display’s creator is attempting to inspire pride in my country, and the majority of the images are fighter jets taking off from aircraft carries, and tanks pushing through destroyed neighborhoods.

It was one-hour to closing time, and if there is one true icon of the State Fair of Texas, other than the giant talking cowboy statue Big Tex, it’s the Texas Star.

At 21 stories high, it’s currently the tallest Ferris wheel in the U.S.  And my friends insisted we end the evening on it.

Another first for me…I’ve never been on a Ferris wheel in my life.  Not out of fear.  I love roller coasters.  Ferris wheels just never seemed extreme enough, I didn’t understand the point.

But as we coasted to a stop, 212 feet up in the air, and saw all of Dallas spread out beneath us, twinkling in the cool night air, sitting with 5 of my dearest friends, it was a lovely, quiet moment that couldn’t have been experienced anywhere else in the chaos of the fair.

Another $6 down.

We headed back to the train, with a $5 stop for a funnel cake, and I tallied the night’s damage: $64.  That’s a couple of really great dinners somewhere, and my uneasy tummy was filled with mediocre deep-fried foods swimming in some disproportionately-good IPA.

I’m not sure I’ll go back to the State Fair of Texas in the future.  My money is better spent elsewhere.  But it was a good experience, overall, considering I had spent the evening with great friends.  Everyone should experience a State Fair at least once.

For more info about the State Fair of Texas’s legacy of fried foods, check out the link below!