I love the fair. I’ve been going to the Arkansas State Fair almost every single year since I was very, very small. I dig on county fairs and festivals as small as the little affairs in the park to the Ozark Empire Fair. But I hadn’t realized just how large a fair could be until I traveled to the Texas State Fair.
My photographer Grav Weldon came along to shoot food, because that’s what we do -- talk about and write about food all over the place. I was covering the fair for a couple of publications. And we were prepared to eat.
We’d heard plenty of word in advance about the deep fried wonderland. The story of fried beer had already hit the news and we were excited to be able to try it. With that much press, it had to be pretty good.
Of course, we didn’t realize when we entered at Gate 2 that Sunday morning we’d drive another mile before we actually got parked. No worries; a tram took us from near our car to an area about three blocks from the main gate. We were pretty excited.
We went through the line, came out the other side and immediately were handed romance novels from Harlequin. I didn’t think anything of it, just put the books in my satchel.
Our first stop was at the Chevrolet Exposition, with the Equinox All-Star Park. We watched kids playing T-Ball, playing “vehicle Tetris” with an SUV and going head-to-head on video games. There were a lot of kids over there at that point.
Our next stop was the Ocean Spray booth, where dozens had collected to try a sample of juice and to pick up a powdered sample to use later. Beside the booth was a display imitating a cranberry bog that children were reaching into to see what it felt like.
We also watched kids and their parents inspecting Caterpillar tractors and watched Sutter’s Black Walnut Taffy being made. But we weren’t there for just the watching. It was time to go in.
We had a goal to meet on the other end of the fairgrounds -- being that fried beer. First, though, was to catalogue all the weirdness along the fairway as we went.
As small aircraft buzzed overhead bearing banners in their wake, we found (in order):
Chicken Fried Bacon: I’ve seen this before at the Arkansas State Fair, and my good friend Leif Hassell calls it “gilding the lily.” But there were a dozen already in line for the salty treat.
Fried Cheesecake on a Stick: “Ooh, that looks really good,” Grav almost whined at me, hungry. “I’ve had it in restaurants, it’s not that unusual.” “Well, okay.” Except these were wrapped in tortillas before being battered and deep fried. Odd.
Texas Fried Frito Pie: This one came in big clumps the size of my fist. We looked but decided to wait. After all, chili is best with beer, right?
Deep Fried Latte: You know, we saw the sign, but we never did see any product come out of that booth that wasn’t the next item. So I have no idea.
Deep Fried Frozen Margarita: We actually stopped a woman stepping away from the counter with hers. Margarita glass, check. Slice of lime, check. Salted edge, check. Overwhelming scent of margarita mix, check and double check.
Corn Dogs, Candy Apples and Caramel Apples: Well, you see those everywhere.
Chocolate Dipped Strawberries: I caught one of the concession workers doing a double dip on a stick. The powerful combination of chocolate and strawberry were almost enough to make me stop and get one. Yeah, but there was the fried beer to look forward to. Right? It had to be good, I’d think.
Deep Fried Peanut Butter and Jelly: A variation on this was introduced at the Arkansas State Fair last year, called the Elvis Sandwich. That variation included bananas. The girls who had ordered it up had also ordered
Deep Fried Cookie Dough: Round balls of cookie dough, battered and deep fried. I can’t express how good that looked. They also had
Deep Fried Pizza: Which Grav took one look at and said “why haven’t they come up with that before?” It looked tasty. And very hot. Good thing the girls had the dough and the sandwich to dine on first.
Deep Fried Moon Pies & S’Mores: Both are essentially graham crackers, marshmallow and chocolate, just a slightly different configuration. They were dipped in batter and deep fried, too. But still not as weird as
Deep Fried Lemonade: This was a head-scratcher for me. Why would anyone really want deep fried lemonade? A thirst-quenching thing turned into a non-thirst-quenching thing. I don’t get it.
So we’d made it past there and all the other things on the other side of the sweeping alley of food. And we were just about to the Centennial Building - when we finally spotted the fried beer stand. So we tried it.
You can read over about that experience on a previous entry. It wasn’t that great, to put it mildly.
We made a bee-line after that for better fare and found the Fried Cheese Curds. The line for this one was shorter than the one we passed by, and we figured whatever was in that line could probably be picked up later. Our loaded tray of white cheese curds came out steamy hot, and the concessionist handed us a pack of Ranch dressing. We found a table in the shade and shared our spoils.
Maybe it was that they were good, but I suspect it was more likely that the fried beer had been that bad -- that Grav just about passed out from joy with the first taste of this Northern delicacy. I was quite thrilled with it, but after one taste of the dish with the Ranch sauce I left it alone. We managed to consume the tray’s worth and a couple of beverages in just a few minutes.
Standing by this point in the shadow of Big Tex -- boy, he’s an odd looking character, isn’t he? -- we found a few more delicacies to try, like Gator Kebabs. They were awfully pretty, but I had a list of things I wanted to try and we figured we’d probably be back around later.
We had to pass through a line of nearly 60 people to get over to the next stand. That line was all people waiting in line for the Fried Frito Pie. I was just overwhelmed by the thought. I mean, were they really that good?
What I was going for at the time was the Texas Caviar -- which was something that was rather normal to me. While advertised as a new fair food in Texas, fried black eyed peas with Old Bay Seasoning can be found in Little Rock at the Capital Bar and Grill as bar snacks, no joke, no charge. I had to get a cup of the Texas version to see if it was any different. Best part was they kept, and I had Texas caviar for the drive home.
We also saw something heartening -- the Dollar Dog stand. Now, most of the items we’d found ran around five dollars (eight to twelve coupons, which can be purchased in sheets or separately for 50 cents each and which are also good on the rides). We walked down the steps into the courtyard of a little restaurant there and sure enough, there were people quietly waiting in line for $1 hot dogs. Nothing fancy, just a dog on a bun that you could have with ketchup or mustard if you wished. There was also a soft serve ice cream stand there.
Grav and I took a short break, looked over the map and schedule and debated what to do next. The obvious answer once we found it was to head back to the Food and Fiber building on the north side of the Cotton Bowl. After all, we were there to cover food, and I was still searching for something that a friend of mine had asked about.
We walk in, and it was packed, a solid line of people heading around the interior in a counter-clockwise direction. We joined the crowd and were swept along as it rolled through a number of vendors with samples -- one with super hot pickles, one with Texas Tea (I liked it so much I bought a bottle to drink there at the Fair), a coffee vendor, a goat soap dealer handing out lavender-sage bar snippets. We got to meet Elsie the Cow from Borden, sampled some raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing served up on spinach leaves, a little Steak-Yums with barbecue sauce, pumpkin dip, banana and strawberry salsas -- just an enormous number of choices. I was almost wanting this sort of experience at my home fair -- but there were some testy points in line when a couple of people would clash.
We ducked into the grocery store at the center of the building, and between the rush of people within we found every sort of thing -- including peanut patties in the shape of Texas, Jalapeno jelly, specialty chocolates, trail mixes, Turkey Jerky, honey, little pecan pies, individual brownies, tomato jam, Texas cherry tarts, every manner of jam and jelly you’ve ever seen in your life, Dublin Dr. Pepper, a bevy of barbecue sauces and plenty of aprons, magnets and Texas memorabilia. And we found the item I’d been searching for -- Dr. Pepper Beef Jerky, in convenient little packs to take home.
We managed to press past the crush of people inside and decided to split up to find restroom facilities. This was probably the biggest mistake we made all day. We’d been at the fair since that morning; here it was nearing 4 p.m. and Mother Nature was making her call. Problem was with all those people, I was left in a line behind the Dog and Pig show for 30 minutes, and poor Grav was out on the food strip trying to run me down. It was another 15 minutes before we paired back up, sat down and drank some water.
Both of us were tired… after nearly six hours at the Fair the walking and pacing and heavy foods were starting to really take their toll on us. We looked over our map and my notes and decided it was time to knock out the end of what we had to do. So we pressed on to the Midway.
At the entrance on the south side of the Cotton Bowl, we found yet another round of odd items, which included:
Fried Guacamole: Little bites of green guacamole in a bundle deep fried. Neither of us were up to trying that out.
Fried Corn: Meh.
Fried Dill Pickles: Well, since the fried pickle was created in Atkins, AR we didn’t really feel the need to try one here.
Fried Gummy Bears: Too bizarre to contemplate.
Fried Sliver Dogs: Hot dogs sliced lengthwise and breaded and deep fried, served up with chili dipping sauce. We passed.
And then… Fried Donkey Tail. No. Way. We approached the booth with trepidation.
“So, what’s a fried donkey tail?” I asked, hoping I wasn’t going to get back an unappetizing answer.”
“You want to see one?” the lady behind the counter asked. I nodded, and she brought out the uncooked version. “It’s an all-beef hot dog that’s sliced open and stuffed with Cheddar cheese, then wrapped up and deep fried.”
“I’ll take it!” I told her. I think I heard Grav’s belly rumble under the fair noise.
But you know, it wasn’t half bad. The burrito-shaped apparition that was passed over the counter was hot and sliced in half, and you could see the Cheddar cheese dripping out. We found a place to sit and, though Grav had worried about what he was going to eat, he managed to finish his half. We really liked it. Better than a hot dog in a bun, for sure.
The gondolas were passing quietly overhead and the crowd was barely roaring around us. I looked at Grav and grinned. “It’s time.”
“Okay,” he said, not really comprehending. He followed me over to the end of the line of stands.
“Frito Chili Cheese time,” I told him.
“I’ll find a place to sit,” he said, turning around.
At this stand, I only had to wait about a minute in line, then just 30 seconds before my $6 tray of strips was handed to me with salsa and sour cream. I sat down next to Grav and we took our shots. I offered him one, which he very slowly ate.
“The rest are yours,” he told me.
“Really? Had enough?”
He looked over his glasses at me.
But I liked this dish. Instead of the pockets we’d seen elsewhere in the Fair, this vendor had gone for individual strips of Frito chips, coated in chili and cheese and then battered and then deep fried. They were tasty on their own, but adding the salsa and sour cream just put them right over the top. I coulda made a meal out of them. Heck, I did.
“I want to hit the Midway,” Grav told me.
“You go shoot, I’ll catch up.”
“Yeah. I want to get the rest of the weird food on camera.”
He took off with his camera and a determined gait. I wandered the rest of the food court area. I saw Gorditas, potato chips on a stick, deep fried bananas with chocolate sauce, Cuban tamales and empanadas and the strangest thing I’d seen all day -- a cheese filled batter dipped Jalapeno on a stick deep fried and coated in chocolate. No, I wasn’t brave enough to try it.
I had headed after Grav down the Midway, shooting as I went. I scouted one stand offering Fried Caramel Apples on a Stick but saw no example of this outlandish idea. There was a long line of people on the front side of the stand, lined up for fried Snicker bars, fried Reese’s peanut butter cups, fried macaroons, fried honey buns, fried Oreos and God knows what else. There were easily four lines of at least a dozen people each, and they were moving fast. Behind the counter the crew of half a dozen workers were slamming sweet things into batter, dumping them in the fryer, pulling them out and handing them over.
I got a text from Grav: MEET ME AT THE TEXAS STAR. I looked up. I wasn’t that far away, so I walked on over and got in line. What was I thinking? I’m afraid of heights!
Grav joined me in line. “So, you going to go up?”
“I don’t know, it’s sorta tall.’
“I’ll understand if you don’t. But imagine the pictures.”
I looked at him, looked at the line that was pushing us forward, and sighed. “I’ll try.”
As we wandered back and forth between the chains that guided the line through the pavilion by the big Ferris wheel, we chatted. I changed my batteries. I caught sight of a sign out of the corner of my eye and tried to focus on it.
“Does that say this is the tallest Ferris wheel in the Western Hemisphere?” I asked, really starting to get nervous.
“I can’t tell,” he replied honestly.
“I wouldn’t be getting on this thing if it wasn’t a permanent structure,” I told him. I wondered if anyone else could see I was shaking.
“It’s about pushing your limits. You can do this.”
“Well, I’m going to try.”
We got up to the platform, and a few minutes later we were ushered into a cylindrical cage with benches on either side. A man and his daughter came in after us, and the cage was locked. And without as much as a how-do-you-do we were swept along and up, about halfway up the side of the wheel while others boarded below.
I couldn’t bring myself to take my camera out of my lap or move my hands. Grav, on the other hand, managed to turn around and shoot into the crowd with the camera. Each time we stopped he did it again.
I did eventually manage to raise my eyes and see the skyline as we were perched on the top of the wheel for more loading. It was a breathtaking view of the Dallas skyline to the right, another skyline ahead and to the left a little, so many trees. I managed to turn once and look down into the row of madness below, the gondolas swinging by back and forth on their cables, the carnival barkers and midway games and rides below.
And then we were back at the bottom, and kept going up and up again for another view before heading to the bottom and being let out. One of the attendants chased Grav off the platform when he stopped to shoot straight up at the wheel.
We got back to terra firma and went straight to the greenhouse. This big pavilion was full of plants and trains, little model garden trains that darted back and forth through tunnels and over bridges. There was a lecture going on in the back corner. Overhead hanging plants slowly slid by on a cable system. There was even a display of faces carved from pumpkins and gourds at the end.
It was getting late -- the sunlight was more horizontal than diagonal at this point and we were tired. The end of the Midway was in sight and though we stopped a few times to get shots of kids on giant slides and big bungee jump contraptions, we were waning like the light.
And then we saw a sign for Fried Green Goblins. Curious, we went up and asked. And then I went to stand in line and get a couple more tickets to round out the ones I had left in my bag.
Right by the coupon stand there was a funnel cake stand -- and I had to stop and gawk. Amidst the other toppings offered was a special, a funnel cake topped with nacho cheese and jalapenos. Really? Really?
Across the way and back to the vendor with the Fried Green Goblins. I paid the $6 worth of coupons and one was pulled off the hot rack and doused in cheese. We took it to a vacant corner and shot it. The Fried Green Goblin was a series of cherry peppers stuffed with chicken and a couple of sorts of cheese, battered, deep fried and coated with nacho cheese sauce.
And you know, it was the best thing we’d had all day. Grav was just going to take the smallest taste but ended up eating about half of it. We both managed to get nacho sauce on our cameras. He laughed a little nervously when I licked it off of mine. Hey, it was the viewfinder, not the lens.
And after a moment of sitting and resting, we started the long journey back to the car. We both caught samples of blueberry juice at the Ocean Spray booth and I picked up a backpack at the Chevrolet expo, which I handed to Grav. “Here’s a souvenir for you!” I told him.
The Harlequin Romance people accosted us again as we exited, pushing yet another two volumes of the exact same romance novels into our hands. It was worthy of a laugh.
The three blocks to the tram that had seemed like nothing on the way in seemed like a mile and a half on the way back. We made it to the pickup point just as the tram pulled up, and rested on it while others jogged to catch up and board it.
“Want to come back tomorrow?” I asked Grav. He just looked over his glasses and sighed at me.
It was nearly eight by the time we got back to our accommodations. We were both beat, and dinner that night consisted of un-fried things. That being said, we were both glad we picked up all the information we did.
So, what’s so very different between the Texas State Fair and the Arkansas State Fair? Well, there is the vastness of it all. The Texas State Fair is huge. Tackling it in a single day is almost beyond belief.
There’s the price difference. While it’s $5 to park and $8 to get into the Arkansas State Fair, the Texas State Fair is $15 for each. But there’s a lot more to offer in Dallas. The freebies from the companies at the expos are better. There are a lot of crazy things to see.
And the Texas State Fair has a prime location and has built on it. The Midway is shaded by big blue sails. The Texas Star is a permanent feature. There’s not a porta potty to be seen.
But I have to say, I still love the Arkansas State Fair. I never found the crafts display in Dallas, never saw any livestock or young future farmers walking animals. It was almost antiseptically clean.
Are there things Arkansas can learn from Texas? Sure -- but not a whole lot. The signage is easier there -- every vendor has a sign in the same font so you can just look across a court and see what you want to eat. Are there things Texas can learn about Arkansas? Well, maybe. The familiarity you get here is different. Arkansas’ state fair is a community affair. We cater to people from here. In Texas, people come in from everywhere. It’s really a different dynamic.
Will I be back? Heck yeah! With better shoes, too! Indeed, Grav and I are already planning to hit not only the Texas State Fair but the Minnesota State Fair as well. It’s interesting to us. And neat.
But will we try fried beer again? Oh, no. That won’t happen again.