Fair Park in Dallas won’t exactly be quiet this fall, but for the first time since 1886, it won’t host the State Fair of Texas, one of the biggest annual festivals in the country.
The nonprofit that hosts the event announced earlier this year that this year’s State Fair was canceled because of the coronavirus, but that hasn’t stopped organizers from finding new ways to bring the fair experience into Texans’ homes, including through online offerings.
To help home cooks recreate some of the iconic fried foods usually found at the park, the State Fair of Texas has taped several episodes of the Big Tex Cooking School, which will be released weekly from mid-September through mid-October.
The first episode features Tom Grace, a concessionaire who has been selling funnel cakes for more than 30 years at the fair. In the video, he teaches home cooks how to make this treat that has roots in many different kinds of fried batters and doughs throughout history.
During medieval times, cooks would pour a yeasted batter through a bowl with holes in it, but in the 1800s, Pennsylvania Dutch who had immigrated to the U.S. started making a fritter by pouring the batter through a funnel — they called it "drechter kuche," a variation on the German word for funnel, "trichter."
With the advent of commercial leavening agents in the mid-1800s, the Pennsylvania Dutch started adding baking powder to the batter. The first recipe for this drechter kuche appears in a cookbook in 1879, followed by an English-language appearance in 1935.
Its tie to fairs doesn’t come until 1950, when the annual Kutztown Folk Festival began to celebrate Pennsylvania’s cultural heritage. They served funnel cakes to honor the region’s German immigrant history. They were a profitable, relatively easy-to-make (and easy-to-carry) food that visitors could walk around with, so the cake’s popularity spread to other fairs.
Although funnel cakes date back farther than corn dogs, you’d be hard-pressed to find a food more closely associated with fairs than the battered-sausage-on-a-stick.
Although the Fletcher family claims to have invented the corndog in 1938 (with its State Fair of Texas debut in 1942), a New York inventor named Stanley Jenkins patented a batter-dipping, fry-cooking cooking apparatus in 1927 that, with a stick inserted inside a wiener, battered and fried, is clearly a predecessor if not originator of the modern corn dog.
Some culinary historians point to cornbread-encased sausages that were likely baked throughout the south even earlier than that, but there’s no clear origin story. (And good luck untangling the history of the Pronto Pups of the Minnesota State Fair, which were invented in Oregon.)
Cotton candy famously made its international debut at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis as "fairy floss," an invention from dentist William Morrison and confectioner John C. Wharton. (Also introduced to an international audience at the fair that year: the waffle ice cream cone, Puffed Wheat cereal and Dr Pepper, which Texans, of course, had been drinking since the mid-1880s.)
The current fair food renaissance of increasingly weird fried foods dates back to the most recent turn of the century. Widely credited fried foods pioneer Charlie Boghosian first sold fried Twinkies at the Los Angeles County Fair in 2001, followed by fried Oreos at the San Diego County Fair, but others have claimed to sell fried Oreos in the mid-1990s.
Because food vendors already had hot vats of oil to fry french fries, it makes sense that they would start frying corn dogs and funnel cakes and then anything else that would capture attendees’ attention.
These days, you can buy at-home cotton candy makers and frozen corn dogs and really good queso to slather over a bowl of tortilla chips. The Ohio State Fair released a series of videos after its 2020 state fair was canceled to share dishes including fried pickles and fried Oreos.
I’m not convinced that you can easily make a corn dog from scratch at home without a deep fryer, but State Fair of Texas star Tom Grace makes a strong case for making at-home funnel cakes using nothing more than pancake mix, water, an egg and vanilla extract.
Grace mixes about 1/2 cup pancake mix with 1/3 cup water, 1 egg and a teaspoon of vanilla extract for each large funnel cake. "You want the consistency of batter to come out but not run out," he explains in the video. He uses a large funnel, filling the funnel with a finger over the end so it doesn’t run out until the oil is hot and ready. Heat the vegetable oil to medium heat and let the batter pour out, drizzling it in a spiral.
Let the batter fry for about 30 seconds to a minute and then flip it, cooking the second half. Remove and place on a paper towel. Dust with powdered sugar and serve.
Without the colorful lights and carnival rides and the far-off sounds of the livestock show announcers in the distance, it won’t feel exactly like the State Fair, but it will feed your nostalgia, which is what fairs are so good at anyway.
A State Fair without leaving your house
To recreate some of the other classic elements of the State Fair of Texas, the organization has created a virtual "State Fair of Texas From Home" experience with online events, videos and downloads.
On the food side of things, fair food lovers can sign up for a drive-thru tasting, but fans also can register for the Blue Ribbon Selection Tasting Series that features Texas wine experts hosting weekly virtual discussions and tastings with winemakers to learn about the Texas wine industry. (The virtual tastings are free, and you do not have to purchase the wine to participate.)
Scardello Artisan Cheese store in Dallas is hosting virtual cheese tastings on Oct. 8 and 15. Participants can pick up cheeses and accompaniments at the store for $30.
The Texas Auto Show, which is the highest attended auto show in the country, will have a virtual experience (TexasAutoShow.BigTex.com) to show off what new car manufacturers have planned for the coming year.
Fair organizers have set up an online shopping guide for vendors and businesses that otherwise would have exhibited during the fair, and you also can take a video tour to learn about the Errol McKoy Greenhouse and Big Tex Urban Farms, which provide fresh food to people who live in the South Dallas neighborhood around Fair Park.
You can take a virtual ride on both the Texas Star Ferris wheel and the Top o’ Texas Tower through videos on the fair’s YouTube channel.
The fair also has digital puzzles and activity packets that you can download and print to engage young fairgoers who want to learn about livestock, agriculture and some of the other cultural and economic industries that are important to the state.
Fairgoers who want to learn more about Fair Park can check out several online videos from the organizations that call the park home, including the Dallas Historical Society and the Hall of State, the Texas Discovery Gardens, and the African American Museum.
Calling all butter sculptors: There’s still time to compete at this year’s State Fair
Corn dog nails. Longhorn butter sculptures. Whataburger cookies.
If you’re a creative Texas, there’s still time to compete in this year’s State Fair of Texas creative arts contests.
Creative arts and culinary competitions are always a large part of many fairs, and even during the pandemic, the State Fair of Texas found a way to host more than 900 arts and crafts contests, whose participants submitted their entries in person in August. (The winners of this year’s arts and crafts contests will be announced soon on the State Fair of Texas’ YouTube channel.)
But because the coronavirus has changed nearly every aspect of the fair, the nonprofit has added seven virtual contests that are still open for entries.
Under the arts and crafts banner, Texans can compete in nail arts, face masks, decorated shelves and sidewalk chalk. In food, there are three contests: cake decorating, cookie decorating and mini butter sculpture. You can submit your entries through Oct. 4, with winners announced Oct. 9. Participants can create their entry, snap a photo and submit it online through bigtex.com.
Photographers also have a chance to participate virtually. There are several photo categories that also have a deadline of Oct. 4. This contest will be judged through online voting that will take place Oct. 5 through Oct. 18, with winners announced on Oct. 23.
Fried Coke and funnel cake burgers: Which State Fair food reigns?
Since 2005, State Fair concessionaires have been competing in the annual Big Tex Choice Awards food competition, and this year the State Fair of Texas is hosting an online version with a bracket of 32 past winners who will compete against each other in five voting rounds. The winner of the Big Tex Choice Awards Championship will be announced the weekend of the Red River Showdown, Oct. 9 to 12. You can vote at BigTex.com/Madness.
To recap the history of winners and top contenders: Abel Gonzales was the first recipient of the Big Tex Choice Award in 2005 with his fried peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwich. That was also the year that James Barrera served up fried ice cream and received top honors.
Gonzales followed up with fried Coke (2006), the same year Shirley London’s fried praline perfection satisfied sweet cravings at the State Fair.
Jake Levy responded to the success of the fried Coke with the deep-fried latte (2007), while Gonzales introduced the fried cookie dough. State fairgoers then enjoyed chicken-fried bacon and fried banana split (2008), followed by Gonzales’ unforgettable deep-fried butter in 2009.
Not to be outdone, Mark Zable introduced (and trademarked) Fried Beer in 2010, the same year that Nick Bert debuted the fried Frito pie. In 2011, the talk of the fair was Justin and Rudy Martinez’s fried bubblegum, and Gonzales returned to the awards in 2012 with fried jambalaya. The father-and-son Martinez duo competed with a fried Thanksgiving dinner in 2013 and a funnel cake-inspired craft beer in 2014.
Isaac Rousso had back-to-back hits with his bacon margarita in 2015 and cookie fries in 2016. Ruth Hauntz surprised everyone with her fried Jell-O in 2016, and Tom Grace used funnel cakes as the buns for a bacon queso burger in 2017. In 2018, the Garza family entered an arroz con leche that took top honors, along with the Martinez family’s cotton candy taco.
Love a deep-fried Oreo? Grab a can of refrigerated biscuit dough, Oreos, oil and powdered sugar, and you're on the way to creating this copycat recipe of the sweet, warm treat at home! This recipe works well with other sweet fillings – such as a scoop of cookie dough, a mini candy bar, or a buckeye. Try placing a different filling in each piece of dough to make an assortment of deep-fried treats. The instructions are the same regardless of what item is inside the biscuit dough.
– Ohio State Fair
1 package refrigerated jumbo biscuit dough
Cooking oil, such as vegetable or canola
Heat oil in a small pan over low to medium heat. Oil temperature should reach approximately 350 degrees.
While oil is warming, remove biscuits from canister. Flatten each biscuit and cut it in half. You will now have 16 pieces of dough. Place an Oreo on top of each flattened biscuit portion. Wrap the biscuit dough around the Oreo, pinching to seal the dough well.
Using tongs or a spoon, gently add dough-wrapped Oreos to hot oil. Fry each one until golden brown, being sure to brown all sides, approximately 2-3 minutes. Bubbles should appear around the edges of the dough.
Carefully remove from hot oil, placing each Oreo on a rack or plate lined with a paper towel. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
— From the Ohio State Fair
Red Velvet Funnel Cakes
My house is a crazy carnival, and I’m really into embracing that atmosphere by frying up some of these crispy, sweet red velvet funnel cakes. They take no time at all, and soon you’ll be living in a perfect world — one where there is a year-round fair in your home, and that fair inexplicably serves red velvet funnel cakes that can be made vegan by using plant-based milk and vegan sugars. Yup, this can be your life.
— Lauren Hartmann
1 1/2 cups milk (can use plant-based)
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon red food coloring
Vegetable oil, as needed
Powdered sugar, as needed
Whipped topping, homemade or store-bought
In a small bowl, whisk together the milk and vinegar. Let the mixture sit for 2 to 3 minutes.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and cornstarch. Stir in the salt and granulated sugar. Set the bowl aside.
Whisk the vanilla and food coloring into the milk mixture. Pour the milk mixture into the flour mixture and whisk to fully combine.
In a large pot or skillet, bring 1 to 2 inches of the oil to 350 to 375 degrees. Reduce the heat as needed to maintain the oil’s temperature.
Pour the batter into a large plastic bag. Cut off the tip of a corner of the bag’s bottom. Make sure it is a very small opening, or the batter will pour out too fast.
Hold the bag of batter over the hot oil and begin to drizzle the batter into the oil, swirling fresh batter back and forth across the frying batter. Make the funnel cake as big as you want.
Fry the funnel cake for 2 to 3 minutes on one side, then flip it and fry it for 2 to 3 minutes on the other side, until the funnel cake is crispy.
Place each funnel cake on a paper towel to drain and repeat the process with the rest of the batter.
Serve the funnel cakes with lots of powdered sugar, vegan whipped topping or both. Serves 6.
— Adapted from "Southern Vegan: Delicious Down-Home Recipes for Your Plant-Based Diet" by Lauren Hartmann (Page Street Publishing, $21.99)
Deep-fried pickles don’t require a deep fryer. Here’s a method you can make at home.
1/2 cup flour
2/3 cup panko bread crumbs
12 to 15 dill pickle chips
1/2 teaspoon dried dill
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Cooking oil, such as vegetable or canola, for frying
Heat 1/2-inch of oil in a small pan over low to medium heat. Oil temperature should reach approximately 350 degrees.
While oil is warming, prepare other ingredients.
Add 1/2 cup flour to a bowl; set aside. Mix panko, dried dill and garlic powder in a second bowl; set aside. Beat eggs in a third bowl; set aside.
Place dill pickle slices in a single layer on a plate lined with a paper towel. Press another paper towel on top of the pickles, pressing firmly to dry pickles thoroughly. Repeat if necessary.
Dredge each pickle in flour, then egg, then panko mixture. Using tongs, gently place each coated pickle slice to the hot oil. Fry each one until golden brown, approximately 2 to 3 minutes on each side.
Carefully remove from hot oil, placing on a rack or a plate lined with a paper towel.
— From the Ohio State Fair
If you’ve ever been to Disney World and tried a Dole Whip, you already know what this ice cream tastes like. I grew up eating Pineapple Whip, a Springfield, Mo., soft serve specialty that predates Disney’s Dole Whip by about a decade and is credited with saving the local county fair. I’ve made a dairy-free Dole Whip by freezing about 1 pound of pineapple chunks and blending them with a little pineapple and lemon juice, as well as about 1/2 cup coconut milk and only a tablespoon or two of sugar. This version is even easier because it uses vanilla ice cream.
— Addie Broyles
2 cups frozen pineapple
1/2 cup vanilla ice cream
1/4 cup pineapple juice
Combine ingredients in blender.
— Adapted from a recipe from Disney Parks