There was a time when I could hardly wait to make the four-hour drive to Dallas for the annual State Fair of Texas. That time was during my hardy teenage and college years, when my vestibular system was still immune to the nausea-inducing effects of the midway rides and my digestive system was still immune to the nausea-inducing effects of the fair food.
By the time I'd entered my 30s, the Fair held far less allure; I could no longer justify the trip north solely to admire the fine-feathered entrants in the poultry competition nor debate which Japanese-made sedan was the more sensible option with my family at the Fair's auto show. This year, even the promise of a brand-new Big Tex was barely enough to get me on a flight to Love Field. "They gave him a butt!" my father, who lives in Dallas, chortled. "And we can gorge ourselves on fried stuff!"
My father was so excited about my visit, I couldn't tell him I'd rather eat at the Hobby Airport Buffalo Wild Wings than eat another rendition of "let's see what crap we can toss in a Fry Daddy this year." In 2009, it was fried butter. In 2010, it was fried beer. In 2011, it was deep-fried bubblegum. In 2012, it was a deep-fried mac 'n' cheese slider. This year it was deep-fried Cool Ranch pizza and deep-fried Thanksgiving dinner.
The bloom is off the rose. The bloom has been deep-fried and drizzled with Ranch dressing, served in a paper boat for $10 and the price of a few months shaved off your life. Although there are foods which can still be fried—tuna sashimi, bagels and lox, pho, kolaches, a leg of lamb, queso, bone marrow, bao, single leaves of spinach, soup dumplings, mayonnaise—what's the point anymore? All anyone is doing these days is destroying an otherwise perfectly good dish in pursuit of a cocoon of grease and the almighty dollar (in the form of Fair currency—50 cents a coupon).
But my father. My excited father, who still sees me as the six-year-old little girl he called Pete, was eager to trade his cash for fistfuls of coupons and whirl us around the Fair together. I perused the booths carefully, looking for something I hadn't yet eaten and something that didn't sound likely to make my intestines cramp up in agony for the rest of the day. Fried biscuits and gravy sounded as terrible as any other option, so he ordered us up a plate.
I could see the look on his face as he tried the first bite; it was one of instant regret. The "biscuit" was really just some puffy fried dough, filled with the kind of starchy, bland cream gravy served at restaurants that offer chicken fried steak as an afterthought. The dough smacked of onion and garlic powder, which offended my father the most. "The batter tastes...off," he said, shaking his head.
We tried again with fried Frito pie, which I remembered as being pretty good in 2011. Only two years later, the bloom is off that rose, too: if a food isn't one of the current Big Tex Award stars, it seems, little to no attention is paid to its preparation. The Frito pie came out as tough, over-fried nuggets filled with the sort of meat paste that is normally found in Jack In The Box $1 tacos.
We gave it one more try for luck and ordered fried brownies—the fried cheesecake my father wanted seemed too much of a gamble at this point. The brownies were almost identical to the brownie bites I occasionally buy as a treat at Whole Foods. They're very good, but the frying process did nothing to enhance the baked goods. Instead, the brownies were just encapsulated in a weird shell of fat and grease, saturated and made soggy with chocolate sauce.
My father and I split the biscuits and gravy evenly. He ate roughly a third of the Frito pie nuggets. Neither of us wanted to finish the brownies. My father's focus was now on the terrible country band on the main stage across from our picnic area. The band was performing to an audience of precisely two drunk University of Texas fans who hadn't made it into the Cotton Bowl for the Texas-OU game. "Sucks for them," he said. I wasn't sure who he was referring to.
Only a few hours into the fair, we were both ready to leave. I had a few sweaty coupons left in my pocket. I offered to buy my father that fried cheesecake on our way out. He declined.