Tag Archives: Texas

In Defense of Texas Wine

In a recent conversation with a potential FRANK diner, the subject of Texas wines arose.

“There are some amazing Texas wines!” I happily responded.

“No,” countered Jennie, “There’s no good wine in Texas.”

This sparked a bit of a debate.  “Have you ever tasted a good Texas wine?” Jennie asked.

“Well…..I have tasted an amazing Texas port.  But if you’re asking me about amazing whites or reds, to be honest, I haven’t.  But I know many sommeliers who say there are some extraordinary wines made here.”

“But have you tasted one?” she pressed.


“I see,” she said cattily.  And that was that.

Texas wines have been plagued by a bad reputation arising from attempts in the 80s and 90s by Texas winemakers to grow “popular” grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay, and since none of these varietals do well in Texas soils, the resulting wines tasted…well…more like diesel than wine.

But you can’t blame them.  Texas has never been known as a hugely-informed wine market.  While there are MANY urban Texans who know and drink good wine, all it takes is a trip into a liquor store or grocery store in most smaller cities in the state to make it painfully clear that wine isn’t as popular as beer here.  You’re lucky to find much beyond the basic cabs and chardonnays from the mega producers in California for $6 a bottle.  Even in my suburb of Dallas, I have to drive 10 minutes to a big liquor and wine store to get anything special…the grocery stores and beer/wine stores in the area only stock basic, inexpensive, mass-produced wines, so I have to go out of my way to get even a decent bottle.  So the vintners here thought they needed to stick to easily recognizable varietals like Chardonnay in order to be able to sell their wines…and even worse, because so many entry-level wine drinkers in Texas prefer cheap, sweet wines, many Texas wines were backsweetened after the fermentation process, resulting in sugary white and red “table wines” that were so sweet, no trace of the original grape’s character was to be found in the glass.

T.V. Munson, the Texan who saved the French wine industry

It wasn’t always like this.  In fact, Texas grapes saved the French wine industry from oblivion…a fact known by few Texans but by literally every Frenchman.  In the late 1800s, a disease called phylloxera ravaged grapevines across much of Europe, destroying virtually every living vine there.  A horticulturist named Thomas Munson who lived in Denison, TX provided the French government with root stocks from our wild grapes (we have 15 native grape varieties growing here, more than any other region on earth according to the World Atlas of Wine), which he had cross-bred to build a resistance to phylloxera.  French grape growers immediately grafted the few remaining vines they had living onto our Texas root stocks.  Now, virtually every vine in Europe is growing on Texas grape root stock, producing the best, most expensive, and most sought after wines in the world.  And Munson’s 1909 tome, Foundations of American Grape Culture, is STILL in print and STILL referenced by vineyards across the world.   California’s legendary wine industry has everything to thank for this document.

Though his work was predominantly in the late 1800s, wine was already being produced in Texas for centuries before.  Mission grapes were planted in the 1650s by monks near El Paso for making sacramental wine, more than a century before the first vines were planted in California.  And our many species of wild grapes have been used to make homemade wine in farmhouses here since the 1800s.  But everything derailed when commercial vineyards decided to plant popular, recognizable wine varietals so their wines would sound familiar on the shelves, rather than actually looking at our soil and climate, and planting grapes that would actually produce great wine in this “terroir” (the French term for the characteristics of a place, and its appropriateness for specific types of plants).

Consequently, we developed this reputation for making terrible wine, and I’ll be honest, I’ve never tasted a bottle of Texas Cabernet or Chardonnay that was even drinkable.  (And I’m no wine snob, I’ll happily sip a glass of Yellowtail, Barefoot, or Charles Shaw…ie, “two buck Chuck.”)  Yet Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay still represent the vast majority of wine grapes grown in Texas, despite the fact that our terroir is more appropriate for less familiar varietals like Tempranillo (tem-pran-EE-yo) and Viognier (vee-yon-yay).  Meaning, the majority of Texas wines continue to be sub-par.

But surely not all!  And I was determined to show Jennie that there are good…even superior Texas wines.  It would be a hard sell.  Jennie is hugely informed about wine.  And while she’s also no snob and has a variety of favorites less than $10 a bottle, all the Texas wines she had ever tasted were so bad she would happily pay NOT to drink them.

Salado, TX, a great place for antiquing

On a recent trip to the Texas hill country, we found ourselves in Salado, a charming historic village 50 miles north of Austin, famous for its antique galleries, but is now populated with a disproportionate number of wineries for its size.  We chose the one with the best reviews on Yelp, and I’ll decline to mention which one simply because I don’t want anyone to get in trouble for the following story.

We walked into the empty tasting/retail room and were greeted by a young woman who offered us a tasting of 6 wines they make right there in-house.  We choked our way through the first few vintages, with bouquets of sulfur and notes of diesel and sewage on the tongue…and it looked like all I was doing was further cementing Jennie’s skepticism about Texas’s potential as a wine powerhouse.

“Do you know if Texas wines are getting a better reputation lately?” she asked the girl.

“Oh, yeah,” the girl replied.  “Last time I read about the most popular wines in the US, the most popular come from America, next was Virginia, and then Texas.  So our wine is really popular.”

We weren’t entirely sure what to make of her comment, and it’s entirely possible it was, in fact, an educated comment, despite how it sounded.  Texas vintners often bring in grapes from other states, and when the percentage of grapes from out-of-state exceeds 25%, the wine must be labeled “American wine” rather than “Texas wine.”  I haven’t heard of any Texas vintners bringing in grapes from Virginia, though, so it’s entirely possible this girl thinks “America” is a state somewhere in the US, and also thinks that Virginia wines are lauded above California, Oregon, Washington, and upstate New York, which currently produce the finest wines in the US.  But nothing she had on offer was endurable.  Feeling bad, I bought 2 bottles of Texas wine that were not made on-site…a Cabernet affectionately called “Kick Butt,” the favorite of the girl behind the counter, and a dry rosé.  Jennie adores rosé, and I figured it would be really hard to mess up a rosé.

Later that night, we popped the rosé after a brief chill.  (Rosés can be served anywhere from room temp to very cold depending on the character of the wine, but it’s perfectly fine to drink most rosés at room temp, and in fact you’ll experience much more flavor from a room temp rosé than a chilled one.  Cold temperatures reduce the number of flavors that the tongue can perceive, and if you don’t believe me, take a scoop of ice cream and let it thaw to room temp.  Then taste a spoon of the frozen ice cream, and then the melted.  They will taste completely different.  I actually drink IPA beer at room temperature, because it’s much more complex and delicious than chilled.)  I found the rosé to be perfectly serviceable, and, in fact, drank the whole bottle myself.  It was too sweet for Jennie, though it would still be ultimately characterized as dry, so she turned up her nose yet again.

After that, I just didn’t have the guts to open the Kick Butt Cabernet.  Jennie had already made up her mind about Texas wine.  I had MAYBE one more chance, and it couldn’t be based on the advice of a girl at a Salado winery who thinks America is a state inside the US.  I had to do some research.

One of the problems inherent in finding a quality Texas wine is that our state has such horrible restrictions on the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol that it’s VERY expensive for a winery to sell their wine anywhere but right on the property.  So most of the vineyards that are supposedly producing exceptional wines only sell on-site, meaning you have to drive to them to buy their wine, or have them ship you an entire case.  Which is expensive if you’re not certain that you love their wine.  And Texas is a big state, with wine regions stretching from the northern plains near Amarillo, 8 hours south to the hill country, 8 hours west to the high desert, so you can’t just do a quick tour.  And I wanted to find a wine that was not only great…but I could buy it in Dallas if I wanted to.

Enter Tina Danze…chef, food writer, recipe developer, and wine specialist.  She often writes about wine for the Dallas Morning News, and a few years back she did a special project that involved an educated panel tasting Texas wines that are commercially distributed around the state, to find the best ones.  You can read her article about the outcome here.  Two of her wine panel’s top picks for Texas reds were from a vineyard not too far from Austin, Pedernales Cellars.  Coincidentally, the vineyard is only a stone’s throw from a property that I was working with about 6 years ago, converting a historic hill-top mansion into a country inn.

A friendly hitchhiker in the Texas Hill Country wine area

So we headed east into the Texas Hill Country AVA.  AVA stands for “American Viticulture Area” and is a designation by the American Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau (man that’s a mouthful!) to specify different wine producing regions around the country…similar to “Bordeaux” and “Cotes du Rhone” in France’s AOC labeling system.  Interestingly, the Hill Country AVA is the second largest wine growing region in the entire nation, though only a fraction of it is actually planted in vineyards.  That leaves a LOT of land open for aspiring vintners!  Lovely, rugged, pastoral land ribboned with small roads where you’re likely to run across a hungry donkey who will stick his head in your window and ask for an apple.

About an hour’s drive from downtown Austin, we arrive at the Pedernales Cellars, perched on a hilltop above rocky, rolling pastures and surrounded by ancient oak trees.

I am suddenly consumed with anxiety.  This is really my last chance to prove to Jennie that amazing wine exists in Texas.  Yet I’ve never tasted ANYTHING good from Texas other than port-style wines…sweet, fortified dessert wines.

We walk in and are greeted by a lady who immediately begins to tell us that Pedernales’s wine maker, David Kuhlken, had the soil on their ranch carefully analyzed, and they discovered that it was almost exactly similar to the calcium-laden soils of Spain, and the climate is very similar to that in France’s Rhone Valley.  David had studied grape growing and wine making at UC Davis, the best school for vintners in the world, and was taking a logical, scientific approach to making wine when he planted his first vineyard in the early 90s.  He knew to stay away from Cabernet and Chardonnay.  His research led him to the European red varietals Tempranillo from Spain and Touriga Nacional from Portugal (commonly used for making port), as well as Rhone varietals like Grenache (gray-NAH-sh), Syrah (seer-AH), and Mourvèdre (moor-VAY-druh), which are often combined into a popular wine blend simply called GSM.  (Cotes du Rhone wines are predominantly GSMs.)

And the fact that the lady behind the counter is effortlessly, properly pronouncing these varietals gives me a spark of hope that she might not, in fact, think that America is a state somewhere in the US, and that Virginia wines are way better than anything California could produce.

We work our way through a few of their whites, none of which impress Jennie.  I can tell she thinks they’re okay.  But we aren’t in search of “okay Texas wine.”  We are in search of stellar Texas wine.

We get to the first pour of a red, a 2011 blend they call “Block Two” made from Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional, listed at $30 a bottle ($24 for wine club members) which, I will admit, is a pricey bottle for me.  First we swirl and smell.

It smells good.  Intriguingly complex.  And good.

Jennie and I both take a sip, and I don’t say anything.  I just look at her.  She takes another sip.  Then she puts her head down and giggles quietly.

“dammit!” she whispers.

Because it’s good.  REALLY good.

“You win,” she says.  “It’s Texas wine.  And it’s really, really good.”

We proceed through several more reds, mostly Tempranillos, some of which also utilize Tempranillo grapes from far north Texas near Lubbock and Amarillo, and some of which are Tempranillos entirely from on-site.  All of them are good.  But not quite as good as the Block Two.

Then comes the final wine in the list.  Their most expensive…the 2011 Family Reserve Tempranillo, listed at $50 a bottle ($40 for wine club members.)  We swirl, smell, and sip.

And there it is.  An extraordinary wine.  Not just by Texas standards.  By ANYONE’S standards.  And not just in my opinion.  Jennie concedes.

“Okay, okay.  You were right.  At least one vineyard in Texas is making incredible, world-class wine.”

This is further backed up by the fact that Pedernales Cellars has won gold medals at wine competitions around the world, including a Grand Gold at France’s coveted Lyon International Wine Competition.

Granted, this wine is not cheap.  I can’t afford to drink it regularly.  But for a special occasion, I’m now tickled pink that I can open a bottle of Texas wine that will impress even the most die-hard wine snobs.

Unfortunately, all the wines we tasted at Pedernales Cellars are only sold right there at the winery.  However, the wines that Tina Danze recommended from them (their Texas Tempranillo impressed the panel more than any other bottle of commercial distributed Texas red, and their GSM blend came in second) are available at around $20 a bottle at many larger Texas wine retailers, and the winery ships their entire wine selection across Texas and to many other states.  I have yet to try these commercially available bottles, but it’s on the list for this weekend.

What this proves is that Texas soils are capable of growing grapes that can, in the hands of a skilled winemaker, be turned into extraordinary wines.  And considering how much cheaper rural Texas real estate is than ANY land in California, Oregon, or Washington…there’s a vast amount of opportunity available here for anyone who’s not scared of growing grapes that no one can pronounce.

Feel free to comment below, especially if you have a favorite Texas wine that you’d like to share with us!


2012/2013 Flu Diary H3N2

I’m usually a pretty healthy person and I haven’t had the flu since I was a kid.  Still, I almost always get the flu vaccine each year because my allergist insists on it.  This year, because of a crazy travel schedule and a constant stream of visitors since Thanksgiving, I hadn’t had time to get vaccinated yet.  But flu season came more than a month early this year, and my name was in the cards.  I was the last to get it in my house, thankfully, so I was able to nurse everyone else through the worst of it.  But then it was my turn.

I am documenting my bout with the flu here, in case anyone wants a description of what this year’s flu is like.  Of course, the infection varies dramatically from person to person, so if you have the flu, you shouldn’t expect your experience to run exactly like mine.  I have the luxury of working from home, so I was able to take extremely good care of myself.  Your experience will vary based on your immune condition, how much rest you get, your age, your own health conditions (asthma, etc.), what drugs you take on a regular basis, etc.

Saturday night I left my flu-recovering partner at home to sleep while I went to enjoy the Chinese Lantern Festival in Dallas with friends.  Halfway through the event, my throat started to feel a bit strange, and I got an uneasy feeling in my joints.  Since I was a kid, that joint feeling always preceded sickness, and I knew it was my turn.  I went home and immediately began doctoring myself.  (It should be noted here that, while everyone in my household got sick, no one went to the doctor and there was no concrete diagnosis of the flu.  I am assuming we all had the flu because no sickness has ever been so virulent that EVERYONE got it.  That, and I’m currently taking cipro for an unrelated non-systemic infection, which means it’s highly likely a virus is responsible for my sickness.)

First the throat.  I made a strong toddy by boiling lots of grated ginger and some black pepper in water, covered, for 15 minutes.  Then I strained it off.  This is the base for the toddy.  To it I added 2 big spoons of local honey, the juice of 2 lemons, and a splash of brandy.  I drank a big bowl of that slowly.  Then I sprayed my throat with propolis (the dark stuff that bees use to seal the cracks in their hives against insect and bacterial invaders…it has potent anti-microbial and anti-viral properties) and took the hottest bath I could stand.  Then I took lots of Vitamin C and zinc, and Nutribiotic GSE, which is a wonder remedy my childhood doctor introduced me to.  It’s made from the extract of grapefruit seeds, and is so potent that it’s being used to sanitize water supplies in South America and treat HIV in Africa.  You can get it at most natural food stores (except the chains like GNC) and it comes in both liquid and tablet form.  I used to swear by the liquid, but it’s incredibly bitter and most people don’t like it, so I only buy the tablets now.  I took 2 tablets along with some Benadryl to help me sleep, and I slept for 12 hours.

I woke up on Sunday with 99.5F…not much fever, but my partner’s fever started out like that, too, so I figured I hadn’t effectively staved it off.  I spent the entire day on the couch, napping, reading, and watching CNN.  My breakfast was a “green drink” of kale, pineapple (for the throat), ginger, and banana with some fresh pomegranate juice I had squeezed a few days before.  I kept very well hydrated.  My vitamin regiment was 1 gram of C morning and night, 250mg of zinc once a day, and 2 tabs of Nutribiotic 3 times a day.  I frequently drank my throat toddy and sprayed it often with propolis.  I had body aches all day and a dry cough.  Luckily, I had made a huge batch of organic chicken noodle soup for everyone else in my house who had the flu the week before, so I always had a really healthy meal waiting for me.  (My soup consists of an organic chicken simmered whole in a covered pot for 2 hours with celery, onion, garlic, and carrot.  Then I remove the veggies and the chicken.  Back into the pot goes skin-on potatoes, rutabaga, and carrot, simmered until crisp-tender.  Then I toss in lots of onion, garlic, celery, and a variety of mushrooms, which are good for the immune system, along with rosemary, thyme, sage, and lemon juice and the deboned chicken, and some noodles, plus a healthy glug of apple cider vinegar.)

Monday my fever was up to 102F, so I took ibuprofen for the first time.  I normally like to let a fever run its course as long as it doesn’t get out of control, but high fevers are dangerous.  And the body aches had become really bad.  Monday I learned that 2 friends were in the hospital for pneumonia related to the flu, and another diagnosed with pneumonia was turned away from the hospital because they were full, so I started taking Mucinex DM, which is an expectorant that helps prevent mucus from accumulating in the lungs, and also contains a cough suppressant.  The active ingredient in Mucinex is guaifenesin, the extract of secretions from the guaiac tree, a native tree to North America, and the native Americans have used it for centuries.  I don’t like guaifenesin because it makes me feel very “fuzzy” and somewhat dizzy.  But there’s no denying its effectiveness.  And this is not the time to take chances with pneumonia, especially when the hospitals are full!

Tuesday my fever was back down to 99F without having taken ibuprofen in 18 hours, so I took that as a good sign.  (My partner’s fever took the same course…99 one day, 102 the next, 99 after, then he ran no fever, so I was looking forward to being fever free in a day.)  My coughs were loosening chest congestion, which was a good sign.  The body aches continued, and so did the hot baths.  My fever was gone by the evening, but I didn’t feel any better.  My skin was incredibly sensitive, particularly on my sides.  Just wearing a shirt felt uncomfortable.

Wednesday my temperature was 98.1, which is about normal for me.  But I still “felt” like I had fever…I had the drawing aches in my joints.  Also, I started sneezing a lot.  I kept eating smart and taking vitamins, Nutribiotic, and Mucinex.  Lots of liquids, primarily water and a mix of fresh pomegranate and cranberry juices.  Wednesday night I felt worse than I had the entire time, even though my fever was gone.  I also had to run a few unavoidable errands.  Wednesday night my head was packed with congestion and my nose was running like crazy, so I used a neti pot to help clear my sinuses.  I continued sneezing and coughing up stuff.

Thursday was the 5th day of the flu.  I felt worse today than I’ve felt so far, which was bizarre to me because my temperature had been normal for 24 hours without taking any fever reducers.  But I still had the body aches I normally associate with fever and my head was very congested.  My body, particularly my sides, were still incredibly sensitive.  Around 2pm my temperature was 99F and it gradually rose to 101F by 8pm, so my fever had relapsed, unfortunately.  I took ibuprophen, Mucinex, cough medicine, and slept for 12 hours.

Friday I woke up with 99.5 of fever while still laying in bed, which rose to 101F after being up for 15 minutes.  I called my doctor and he said there was no need to come in unless I couldn’t get the fever to break.  I asked if I should be taking Tamiflu, and he said that the anti-flu medications are most effective when started within 2 days of the onset of symptoms.  (This is why it’s important to go to your doctor as soon as symptoms begin if you are a high-risk patient.)  The weather has warmed up in Dallas (72F!) so I was able to sit outside in the warm sun, which felt really good.  I’m pretty upset that the fever relapsed, but I hear from many people that this is common with this flu strain. I took ibuprofen in the evening and the fever went away.  I slept 12 hours that night.

Saturday I woke with no fever, but it’s cold and rainy again in Dallas.  I feel tired, but it may be due to the 12-hours of sleep.  I’m staying on the couch, drinking lots of water, and editing a year’s worth of video backlog that I’ve been neglecting.  Saturday marks the 1-week anniversary of my first symptoms, and is the first day I felt close-to-normal since then.

Sunday is the 9th day of the flu, and other than a cough, I have no other symptoms.  My on-the-couch flu symptoms lasted 8 days.  The cough and chest congestion lingered for an additional week, which I hear from friends and fans, is very typical.

If you are reading this post because you think you may have the flu, please be very cautious.  I read on the CNN website that the CDC says up to 49,000 people could die in a bad flu season.  And this year’s strain, H3N2, has a history of being particularly virulent and severe.  A healthy 17 year old boy in the town next to me died last week from the flu…AFTER his fever broke and he was feeling better.  (He actually died of a massive internet staph infection which bloomed when his immune system was suppressed from fighting the flu.  Almost all of us have antibiotic-resistant staph living in our noses and on our skin, so similar scenarios are possible.)  Hundreds of others have died already and we’re only 5 weeks into this flu season.

I say these things not to fearmonger.  Not everyone with a sniffle needs to flee to the emergency room.  But many of us normally-healthy folk turn up our noses at the mention of the flu, thinking we won’t get it, and if we do, we’ll get over it quickly and it will be nothing more than an inconvenience.  Please don’t take anything for granted this flu season, especially if you’re like me and you haven’t had the flu since you were a kid.  Stay home from work.  Rest.  Stay hydrated.  Eat healthy.  And if your fever gets extremely high, or if you have vulnerabilities that could exacerbate the flu, like asthma or a compromised immune system, see your doctor or an urgent care clinic.  Try to avoid going to the emergency room unless you are experiencing shortness of breath or an extremely high fever that will not respond to anti-inflammatories or analgesics, or unless you are excessively vulnerable to infections.  A trip to the emergency room if you DON’T have the flu may ensure that you contract it!  (Please remember that you should wait 20 minutes after drinking a hot or cold liquid, or smoking, to take an accurate oral temperature!)

If you are still healthy, please get a flu shot, not just to protect yourself, but to protect your family and friends.  If you get the flu, you WILL give it to them.  Sanitize your hands regularly at work and home, and avoid close contact with coworkers who are sick.

Stay healthy!

If you are sick with the flu, you are more than welcome to detail your experience in the comments below, so others can get a better idea of how each infection experience is different:  (And for those who previously commented, I apologize.  My fever addled-brain caused a few improper key strokes and this post got deleted along with the comments.)

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!