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You can't spell 'rodeo' without 'Oreo'

Pizza on a stick, death on a pale horse and other stories from the food court at the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo

Mike Sutter

I wasn't going to talk about the pig races, until they brought up the Oreos.

At the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo's Swine Sprints, four little piglets rocket around a tiny NASCAR oval. They do it for the Oreo cookies waiting at the finish line, rooting them out like trans-fat truffles. It's one of the things you can watch for free with your $7 fairgrounds admission, it's in a shaded tent with bleacher seats, and your kids will lose their minds over how cute the beagle-sized porkers are.

I went to the rodeo chasing after Oreos, too. The deep-fried kind. Ich bin ein swine? Maybe, but I wasn't the only cookie chaser. "We came from Southwest Austin to see the monkey ride a dog," Joe Dickie said. "And to eat deep-fried Oreos."

Yes, there's a cowboy-monkey show. But this is a story about what to eat at the rodeo.

First, it helps to know the way of the token. Machines all over the fairgrounds will change your folding money into currency from a land where a Bud Light tallboy equals six tinkly golden coins. One token equals one dollar. Bring cash and lots of it.

You'll find the Oreos for five bucks a handful at a castle-looking thing called Creamalot, with powdered sugar on top and chocolate sauce on the side. In the fryer, the batter-coated cookies go from breaky to cakey, and without that shelf-stable Oreo crunch, it's just a doughnut with a cupcake in the middle.

The novelty calories pile up in a hurry. A crisp funnel cake slathered with strawberries and soft-serve ice cream is $7 from the Sundae Cakes trailer. The riddle of the starchy crown — is it fries or chips? — calls out from the King's Taters truck for $6. Dennis and Vickie Bragg of Michigan are rolling out $4 spears of batter-fried pineapple on a stick for the first time in their Donut Diner.

Sticks are in deep supply at the fairgrounds, functioning as handles for chocolate-dipped cheesecake, shrimp, fried chicken, corn dogs , mushrooms, marshmallows and more.

Over at the Swain Family pizza place, Ronnie Biggers walked away (eight tokens lighter) with pizza on a stick. Biggers was hard to miss, in part because he was wearing Longhorn-baiting Alabama red, but also because he has a verse from Revelations tattooed across his left forearm, the one about a pale horse and death and all that. He was visiting from Fort Hood in Killeen, where he's an Army staff sergeant. He liked the pizza, sort of a calzone lollipop stuffed with "cheese, pepperoni and grease, lots of grease. But it's good," he said. And it's good not to argue with the pizza critic of the Apocalypse.

Do ribs count as food on a stick? If not, let's grant a waiver to the pork ribs from Big Bubba's Bad BBQ, a wooden leviathan of a rig from Denver where Isidro Lopez worked a grill full of chicken and jalapeños in front of him and a barrel smoker as big as Zeus' tailpipe behind him. A plate of four smoky-sweet ribs the color of lacquered rosewood with beans and slaw costs $12, a bargain in the land of $7 turkey legs.

At the Good Ol' Burgers stand, everything is "monster." Monster pastrami, a monster pretzel the size of a submarine hatch for $7, monster burgers. The four-patty model costs $18. It's probably the one spinning around on top of the building, blotting out the sun.

There's non-monster food at the fairgrounds, too. El Pollo Rico is there with grilled chicken, rice and borracho beans for $8. Joe's Famous K.C. BBQ lays down a tender pulled-pork sandwich and hot, skin-on fries for $11 with a drink. For Kansas City trailer cook Cynthia Johnson, the regional style means a dry rub, lots of pork, tomato-based sauce and something else. "There's a lot of pride and love in our food," she said. "And everything is slow and low."

Most of the food trailers are clustered in a food court near the east entrance, on the opposite side of the main rodeo arena from the carnival midway. From a cotton-candy trailer, Rodney and Lisa Albers from Oklahoma City also make candy apples with Longhorn and Aggie designs for $5. Adam McKinney's Philly cheesesteak trailer is cleaner than a show-kitchen, even when his grill is heaped with onions and paper-thin slices of marbled steak. His family's been in the business since 1927.

Away from the main food court and behind the Borden Kidstown tent, vintage chuck-wagoneers K.R. Wood and Karen Jellison from Manchaca sell cane-sugar draft sodas in flavors from sarsaparilla to black cherry in souvenir tin mugs for $6. On Sunday, Wood sang a fine cowboy rendition of "Tumblin' Tumbleweed" on the stage across from his concession.

Next to his wagon is the Sirloin Hut, the one with life-size cutouts of John Wayne, James Arness and Clint Eastwood. There, Carol Knaga and her crew from southern Illinois serve chunks of good grilled steak, green beans, bread, mushrooms and skillet potatoes for $10.

"We went on the road 22 years ago," she said. "We just thought the fairgrounds needed something besides deep-fried."

Deep-fried runs in the veins of festival concessionaires. At one trailer, $6 buys your choice of fried sandwiches: cheese, cheeseburger, peanut-butter-and-jelly. It's the orange-and-white Topper Grill, over by the kiosk selling keychains made with real insects and a sticker booth where the Beatles and Slipknot get equal billing.

But this year's fry prize goes to a different sort of fries — calf fries. Eight or nine of them on a bed of fried potatoes runs $6.

"People ask what they are," said Sheila Edwards of Coach's Catering. "I just point up to the sign. 'You notice anything missing?' " On that sign is one little bull who'll never sing baritone in the glee club. This from a booth that does most of its business in turkey legs and fried chicken on a stick.

Speaking of chicken, you'll never guess what calf fries taste like. "Chicken gizzards," a veteran fry-man said.

I'll just have to take his word on that one.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo

7311 Decker Lane. 919-3000, www.rodeaustin.com.

Hours:11 a.m. to around 10:30 or 11 p.m. daily (whenever the concert and pro rodeo events end each night) through March 27, except for March 22-26, when the fairgrounds won't open until 4 p.m.

Fairgrounds admission: $7. $4 for ages 3-12. Free for 2 and younger. Does not include pro rodeo and concert admission. Includes access to food, the carnival, shopping, youth livestock shows and exhibits, outdoor music and a few specialty shows such as pig races and yes, a cowboy monkey.

Pro rodeo and concert admission: $20-$37, includes admission to both (unless concert ticket sales exceed rodeo seating; then concert-only standing-room tickets will be sold). Fairground admission is included if you buy tickets in advance at www.rodeoaustin.com.

Parking:$6 per car.

Carnival rides and games: Prices vary, but even simple rides like a slide can cost $3. Wristbands allowing all-day free rides are $15 through Friday (March 19). After that, they're $20 in advance at www.rodeoaustin.com or $25 at the fairgrounds.

Note: Bring cash. Vendors accept only tokens. The tokens are $1 each from bill-changing machines throughout the fairgrounds.