I Believe I Can Fry
How a mild-mannered database analyst became the undisputed king of the fair park fryers—and the master of a heart stopping new culinary movement.
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Abel Gonzales Jr., age forty, is the high priest of frying at the State Fair of Texas, which is to say, the world. Since 2005, when the fair introduced the Big Tex Choice Awards, a kind of Oscars for excellence in frying, four of the little statuettes have gone to him. He has fried Coca-Cola and cookie dough and pineapple rings, among other offerings that profit dentists. Followers taste his commitment and reciprocate with enthusiasm. It is not unheard of to see groups of girls screaming as he walks through the fairgrounds. A few years back, a couple found his talents so moving that they asked him to officiate their wedding. Once, a devoted fan requested that the master deep-fry his vinyl wallet. After Gonzales reluctantly complied, the young man looked at his girl and, in what must have been a serious turning point in their relationship, held the crispy billfold in the air and whooped.
Since the advent of the Big Tex Choice Awards, extreme frying has become a seasonal rite. Every fall, the crowds venture out of the comfort of the air-conditioning, drawn by the hiss of the Fair Park fryers. Media outlets rack their brains for puns, such as “Come Fry With Me” (the Economist) and “It’s Oil or Nothing” (Dallas Morning News). The past few years, a good deal of their attention has also focused on Gonzales. From television (Oprah, Today) to the farthest corners of the blogosphere, Gonzales’s work has been featured and dissected. Andrew Zimmern, the host of the popular Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods, declared him “the Willy Wonka of the Texas State Fair.” Oprah simply referred to him as a “guru.”
I met Gonzales in March at his temporary test kitchen in the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, in Dallas. He would not share with me his concept for this year (the judging is on Labor Day), but he had agreed to cook for me what many people consider to be his masterpiece: fried butter, which won last year’s Big Tex award for most creative food. For a man about to place frozen balls of dough-wrapped butter into a vat of oil, Gonzales was surprisingly trim, with only full, dimpled cheeks attesting to his occasionally unhealthy diet. A Vandyke beard and jumpy, expressive eyebrows gave him a mischievous appearance. That day, he wore jeans, cowboy boots, and a classic white chef’s jacket that he was quick to downplay. “I’m not a chef. This whole coat thing really makes me uncomfortable,” he said. “I wear them a lot because I’m in the kitchen and blah, blah, blah. But I’m not a chef. You know, I never claimed to be a chef.”
Since he works only during the three-week duration of the fair (this year it runs from September 24 to October 17) and takes off the rest of the year to travel and hang out at home with his dog, the best way to describe Gonzales’s professional life is to say that he’s a “concessionaire,” though the term undersells him the way “band” does the Beatles. His imagination never rests. Three years ago, for example, a beer distribution company asked him to concoct a deep-fried beer. He was able to turn the product around quickly and easily, and even if he didn’t see a market for the result, the commission did get him thinking about beer. Over a six-month period, he experimented and came up with a potato chip that tasted like beer. “I soaked kettle chips in this beer solution, and then I fried them,” he said. “When they come out of the fryer, they’re really crisp, and I use the salt-and-beer-flavoring mixture to spread on top.” And he didn’t stop there. “I was really going crazy at the time, pushing the envelope,” he told me. “I made a one-ounce liquid that, when poured into a beer, would completely change the taste of the beer. So you could start out with Coors Light, pour this one-ounce shot into it, and it would turn into a piña colada, a margarita, a cosmopolitan, whatever. It would remain fizzy, but the whole taste complex would completely change. You take a creamy beer like Guinness or Negra Modelo, and the root beer shot made it out of this world.” One can argue the merits of these concoctions, but the fact is that all of Gonzales’s creations sound pretty gross at first. They must be tasted to be judged.
Gonzales lifted the fry basket out of the oil, tossed the five balls of dough on a plate, drizzled them with honey, and dusted them with powdered sugar, coaching me all the while in the ways to avoid a squirting mess. He waited a few seconds as they cooled, then dived in, motioning for me to hurry. I popped one, bracing myself for a coating of grease followed by a mushy, slightly salty lard ball. Instead, it was the most majestic breadstuff I’d ever eaten, sweet, then doughy, then warm, with a twist at the end: a tiny pat of butter, just barely starting to melt, like an opiate at the center of the world’s most scandalous doughnut.
The process of cooking food in hot fat is only slightly less ancient than roasting a carcass on an outdoor fire. The Egyptians used goose, pork, and beef fat for frying. Arabian cooks preferred the unique flavor of sheep’s tail fat. Worldwide, the victuals endorsed for submersion varied, but the general tenet down through the ages seemed to be that just about anything was better cooked in oil. (Jerry Hopkins, the author of Extreme Cuisine: The Weird and Wonderful Foods That People Eat, suggests that rats rubbed with garlic, salt, and pepper and then dunked in hot vegetable oil for six to seven minutes are, if not delicious, at least edible.)
But deep-frying didn’t find its ideal showcase until the fair phenomenon caught on in America in the late-nineteenth century. Fair cookery was a way for inventive American cooks to demonstrate creativity and resourcefulness. An exhibit of an immense pumpkin or an eleven-ton wheel of cheese was impressive to look at but ultimately invited a very practical question: How do you eat it? According to Warren Belasco in Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, cooking contests arose as a solution. They were also a way of celebrating the great abundance of American farms, a kind of culinary brag. Popular demonstrations riffed on American staples such as corn, a grain that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair featured in three hundred preparations, including cream of cornstarch pudding, hominy Florentine, pilau, Brunswick stew, mush croquettes, cream pie, Boston bread, Victorian corn gems, and corn dodgers.
Unfortunately for those present, the selection did not include a hot dog dipped in cornmeal batter and deep-fried. That future treasure of the fair circuit would belong to Carl and Neil Fletcher, brothers who came to Dallas in 1930 and decided to augment their income as vaudevillians by inventing the “corny dog,” made famous at the 1942 state fair. “We have heard some fellow had used a mold to put cornbread around a wiener, but that was too slow,” Neil told the New York Times in an interview in 1983. “So my brother started thinking and said, ‘Why not mix a batter that would stay on a weenie?’ So we started experimenting in the kitchen and finally came up with a batter that would stay on. It tasted like hell. When we got one that tasted okay it wouldn’t stay on the weenie. We must have tried about sixty times until we got one that was right, and we spent another twelve years improving it. We haven’t touched it since.”
The corny dog is unquestionably the finest concession ever created in the state of Texas. Though both Fletcher brothers have since died, the fortunate Fletcher descendants who now run the business sell about half a million of their inventions during the run of the fair. Corny dogs routinely outsell all other fair foods, such as funnel cakes, nachos, turkey legs, sausage on a stick, roasted corn, cotton candy, and anything else dispensed from the roughly two hundred food booths and carts at the state fair. Around eighty vendors control these concessions, which are leased on a year-to-year basis and often held onto fiercely by a family (like the Fletchers) for generations. Lots of luck to the outsider who wants in. Hundreds of applicants fight for the two or three locations that become available each year.
For decades the Fletcher brothers’ awe-inspiring invention did not attract any challengers from the other sellers. That all changed in 2005.“You always want to have some things new and different at the fair,” explained Ron Black, the fair’s senior vice president of food and beverage. “New cars, new shows, new booths.” Apparently while visitors still looked forward to their annual gastronomic overload, even the most charitable confessed that their encounters had grown stale. So Black and his people devised a contest designed to prod the concessionaires’ imaginations: the Big Tex Choice Awards. The process would begin with a letter sent to all State Fair of Texas concessionaires, inviting them to mail in a description of a new and audacious dish. Next, a committee of anonymous judges would wade through the submissions and choose the finalists. Finally, on Labor Day, the fair would host a big tasting, with three or four judges rating the dishes on a scale of one to ten in two categories: Best Taste and Most Creative. Winners would be awarded a golden statuette, the body resembling an Academy Award, the head a bobbling likeness of Big Tex.
As a result, the past five years have been a kind of golden age for our state fair concessionaires. Since the gauntlet was thrown down, complacency has been replaced by an extreme-sport version of frying: Witness the Fried Banana Split, the Crispy Fried Cantaloupe Pie, the Zesty Fried Guacamole Bites, the Country-Fried Peach Cobbler on a Stick, the Fernie’s Fried Mac ’n Cheese, the Fried Praline Perfection, and the Fried Italian Meatballs.
It may be that the Big Tex Choice Awards simply awakened a killer esprit d’fry lurking in the genes of the concessionaire population. Gonzales’s two biggest challengers, Christi Erpillo and Nick Bert Jr., are both from fair families. Erpillo’s mother was the first person to bring funnel cake to the Texas fair, in 1980. (“Abel, my mother, and Skip Fletcher [the owner and president of the state fair’s corny dog stands] are all Woodrow Wilson High School graduates,” she told me meaningfully.) Bert, who has been a Dallas County sheriff’s deputy for 27 years, is the grandson of Samuel Bert, the inventor of the snow cone machine. These people were raised around fair food; 350-degree oil pulsed in their veins.
Gonzales is not like them, not exactly. His introduction to the miraculous powers of a fryer did come by way of his father, but not in a booth. Abel “A. J.” Gonzales Sr. owned A. J. Gonzales’ Mexican Oven, a successful eatery in Dallas’s historic West End. The business required the customary grueling hours. “My father was busy all the time. My mother worked nights. So actually my grandmother pretty much took care of us,” he said. The family had just a few days off each year, to attend the state fair. They were freakishly loyal about this tradition. “We are a fair family,” Gonzales explained. “We were the kind of kids who used to get new outfits for the fair. I mean, it was a big deal for us.” He has never missed a fair and says he would never even consider it. Gonzales was born in November 1969 and has been to every fair since then. It is safe to assume that had he been born in October 1969, he would have made it to that year’s fair as well.
By the time he had his own booth, Gonzales was familiar enough with the traditional fair menu that he felt himself an expert by proxy, but his outlier’s confidence led to strange gastronomic experiments. One of his favorite creations, used to top off a deep-fried pineapple ring, is banana-flavored whipped cream dipped in liquid nitrogen. One bite and you can literally blow smoke through your nose. “My thing is something new, something that nobody’s done before,” Gonzales said. He is aware that this philosophy has made him something of a novelty himself. “I would think a chef would look at me and kind of go, ‘Pfft, move on with your little fried self,’ ” he said.
He’s right. The search for the next corny dog probably would not fulfill the romantic dreams of a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. But many would kill for a concessionaire’s profits. For each $4 or $5 item, Gonzales pays the fair a 25 percent share. After he subtracts taxes, staff wages, and supplies, his most successful items leave him with a profit of about $1 per plate. Now consider that in the three-week run of the fair he can sell about 10,000 orders on a Saturday and 5,000 to 7,000 on a weekday. “People always go, ‘You must be making a million at the fair,’ ” he said. “Honestly, I am not. I make enough money so I don’t have to work the rest of the year, but if I had kids or a wife, there’s no way I could get away with that.” Having your creation declared a finalist can increase business by 30 percent; a winner can increase his initial figures at least six times over. In 2009, after winning the award, Gonzales sold about 35,000 orders of fried butter, or 140,000 total balls.
If you have never deep-fried anything in your life, you may be thinking at this point, “How hard can it be?” Anyone can stick food in a fryer. But consider: It took the Fletcher brothers sixty attempts to produce a batter that tasted good and stayed on the weenie. Mastering the science of frying requires know-how, but to go further and create a memorable state fair food, one has to have an artist’s inspiration. The right balance must be struck between novelty and flavor.
No wonder then that secrecy abounds. Participants contacted for this article were evasive about their future endeavors. Ideas like fried jelly beans and fried Pop Rocks do not fall from the sky, and they can be quickly appropriated. “Other fairs are following our lead,” Erpillo explained. “Last year I won Best Taste for Fernie’s Deep-fried Peaches and Cream on September 7. The Texas fair didn’t open until September twenty-something, but Oklahoma or Kansas was having a fair September 11 and somebody was already knocking us off.” That the R&D can be brutal, burning eyes and skin, only adds to the sense of ownership. Glen Kusak won Best Taste in 2008 for chicken-fried bacon. “We had tried an item that contained a hot dog,” he told me. “The wiener exploded, and it became ugly pretty quick.”
One does have to wonder, however, where the line should be drawn. Milton Whitley, a high school teacher who has been a concessionaire at the state fair for twenty years, told me recently that he had battered and deep-fried mud. “We had it,” he said. “I’ll be honest.” He wanted to change the subject, but I pressed him for details. He continued to dodge. I wondered if he was pulling my leg, until I became aware that he had an entirely different reason for hesitating. “I’m going to get myself in trouble for bringing that up,” he said. “I think that’s my ace in the hole this year.”
How rare is the moment when the person who is drifting is overcome with a sense of purpose? The sudden obsession could be anything—hairstyling, doll manufacturing, bass fishing. One morning he wakes up and says, “That’s what I need to do.” This is possibly the most important milestone in anyone’s life, but it sometimes takes years for the revelation—if it happens at all. Like many offspring of restaurateurs, Gonzales first entered the family business as an unenthusiastic dishwasher, in his case as punishment for bad behavior and bad grades. “The first time I worked in the restaurant I couldn’t even reach the sink to wash dishes—I remember that,” he said. “It was really embarrassing, because everybody knew why I was there: I was in trouble.” In time, he graduated to prep chef, then cook, then manager. But the 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week responsibility of a restaurant was not appealing. “I am way too lazy for anything like that,” he said. Instead, when he was in his early twenties, he followed the gravitational pull of the nineties dot-com boom and landed a job at a direct-mail marketing company. He started off in the warehouse, driving around pallets of paper. Later, he became a machine operator, and eventually he worked his way up to programmer and database analyst, a position he held for more than a decade.
This profession, he discovered, was only slightly better than washing dishes. “It was very boring. I was behind a desk in a cube,” he said. “I would write programs all day long and surf the Net and talk on the phone and take lunches—really nine-to-five, like the movie Office Space. We had Hawaiian shirt day, casual Fridays, happy hour.” He’s able to laugh about it for about as long as it takes to spit the sentences out, then he’d rather move on. “That was a rough time in my life,” he said.
It was in 1999, after losing $20 or $30 on a ring-toss game at the fair, that the notion of actually working there dawned on him. “Gah! That guy is making a fortune just three weeks out of the year doing a goofy little bottle trick!” he said. Gonzales looked into operating a game booth at the fair and discovered that one company ran all the stands. So he tried another angle: concessions.
Three years later he opened his first booth, serving a giant sopaipilla in the shape of Texas, covered in honey, cinnamon, whipped cream, and strawberries. It was an idea adapted from his father’s restaurant, but he used bread dough instead of sopaipilla dough for a more buttery flavor. The reaction was mild. He had to drag customers off the midway like a carnival barker. But even if his initial few seasons at the fair were difficult (his first year he actually lost money), he still dreaded going back to his nine-to-five gig. “I remember the first year, we ended on a Sunday and we were there until three in the morning,” he said. “I was up at seven and was at work at eight. It was terrible. That first week back to work from the fair was awful.”
For a few years he carried on a kind of double life as an office worker and a concessionaire. Gonzales was still living at his parents’ house, even though his parents had moved out in 2000. (“It’s really, really strange,” he says. “I just never left.” ) Then, in 2005, Gonzales returned from a month-long vacation in Egypt and saw in his pile of mail an envelope from the fair. The announcement within stated the rules for the Big Tex competition, as well as a theme: Elvis. “That made me think right away: peanut butter, banana, and jelly sandwich,” he said. Though the deadline had passed, he immediately called the head office and begged them to take a late entry. They did. A day later, he dusted off his home fryer from Target and started to experiment. The product that resulted from his trials was simple and delicious: a standard PB&J sandwich with banana, battered, fried, quartered, and served dusted with powdered sugar. It won the 2005 award for Best Taste.
Each subsequent year, Gonzales tried to outdo himself. In 2006 he won Most Creative for Deep-fried Coke (“Smooth spheres of Coca-Cola-flavored batter are deep-fried, drizzled with pure Coke fountain syrup, topped with whipped cream, cinnamon, sugar, and a cherry” read the fair guide). In 2007 he won Best Taste for Texas Fried Cookie Dough. This was followed by the deep-fried pineapple ring topped with the frozen banana-flavored whipped cream (the only entry of Gonzales’s not to win an award). By the end of 2008, he thought the attention had peaked. “I had been on ABC. I had done interviews in Australia and Argentina,” he said. “I was taking stock of everything and I was going, ‘That was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I’m never gonna have that again.’ ”
Oh, how wrong he was. In 2009 he figured out a way to deep-fry a pat of butter. The concept alone was going to attract people; he knew that. But he had no idea how it would take off: Though it has a long way to go to catch up with the corny dog, fried butter can now be found at fairs around the country. “It’s just amazing,” he said. “One night a friend called me up and said, ‘You’re on Letterman’s Top Ten,’ and I was like, ‘No frickin’ way!’ ” (The late-night comedian deadpanned, “This is why the rest of the world hates us,” before launching into his “Top Ten Questions to Ask Yourself Before Eating Fried Butter.”) The money was good, but the real payoff was something unexpected for a concessionaire: fame. “I mean, all of a sudden TV programs like Oprah come to your booth and you’re a star,” he said. “For those three weeks, you’re it.”
At age forty, Abel Gonzales discovered that he had a gift. It wasn’t necessarily deep-frying. It was dreaming up bizarre concepts. “Did you ever watch The Honeymooners?” he asked me. “The whole show revolves around this guy coming up with megamillion ideas, and I swear I’m like him. I come up with all these ideas.” One of his proposals is a thirty-minute TV show starring himself, trying to solve problems in the kitchen like a one-man culinary A-Team. “Hopefully somebody will be interested in buying it,” he said. The show’s conceit summed up what Gonzales hoped would be his legacy: “There’s that idiot. He doesn’t know anything. But he figured it out.”
The day before I met Gonzales at his test kitchen, I’d called to ask if, in addition to specialties like fried butter, he could prepare some experimental items. I wanted to get a sense of the R&D process. Friends had suggested that I have Gonzales fry, among other things, a feather, an origami bird, and a small boot, but he had his own array of challenges in mind. On the large brushed-steel table, he had laid out his ingredients: Aunt Jemima buttermilk pancake mix, a can of Dole fruit cocktail, a bag of powdered sugar, a box of Bisquick, a bag of microwave popcorn, a jar of confection sprinkles, a can of pineapple rings, a whisk, tongs, a skimmer spoon, and a few red mixing bowls. The deep fryer, measuring about two feet by three feet, sat adjacent to a steel industrial stove, heating a vat of oil.
Gonzales is a natural performer. He narrates the frying process with the verve of a cooking-show veteran, complete with humming punctuated by exclamations. One of the first things he fried for me was a fruit cocktail. “Let’s get as much of this excess liquid out as we can,” he said, pushing the lid down. Then he flipped the lid and spooned the contents into a mixing bowl of prepared pancake mix. “Put that in therrrre.” He walked to the fryer and began scooping it in, but almost immediately things went awry. “No—nooo, don’t turn into a blob,” he shouted. “We might have a failure.” He moved the pieces around with a mesh skimmer spoon. “It’s not adhering to the batter,” he said, pulling the unidentifiable brown bits out of the vat and tossing them onto a plate. “I don’t know what happened. We’ll put some powdered sugar on that.” He popped a piece in his mouth and motioned that it was so-so. “Man, I don’t know what kind of fruit I just had.” Cringing, he gave his verdict: “No fried fruit cocktails. Not a success.”
We made our way through the remaining ingredients on the table. We tried the pineapple ring (“Palate cleanser!” he said), the butter, and the popcorn, whose battered kernels withered into flavorless beige blobs. Eventually, he got around to his personal Mount Everest, something so impossible to fry that he hadn’t even laid it out on the table to begin with: lettuce. His kitchen monologue revealed his conflicted emotions about this undertaking. “I love it!” he said as he pulled a plastic box of precut romaine out of the refrigerator. He popped it open and stared at his ingredients. “This is just going to be awful,” he said, shaking his head. “But we’re going all the way.”
The level of difficulty of fried lettuce is pretty high up there, right near a ten. It is novel, for sure. Whether or not it can be good is questionable. And all this is moot if it doesn’t survive the fryer. Anything plunged into 350- to 375-degree oil loses moisture quickly, and a romaine leaf is 95 percent moisture to begin with. The bubbles that you see on the surface of a pot of boiling oil are the water molecules escaping from whatever is being fried. This is how frying works—it sucks away moisture, creating a crispy shell around a (hopefully) juicy center. The starch in a potato gives a french fry sufficient toughness to withstand this experience, one that, needless to say, spells death to a lettuce leaf.
Gonzales’s batter, therefore, had to be perfect to keep the lettuce from going limp. He had selected a Bisquick batter. He tossed the leaves from the salad box into his red mixing bowl and continued his monologue. “This is good, you know? Maybe it’s not going to come out that bad. I try to be optimistic. But I just assume it’s going to be bad until I actually work with it.”
He let the leaves soak in the batter for a moment: “I think this lettuce is going to fall apart on us. I always think that whatever you’re frying is like a little baby, and you have to protect the baby from the heat of that fryer. Some things, some little babies, are just not built—can’t take it. This is what I think when I think of the salad.” (Later on, when I asked Rosana Moreira, a professor in food engineering at Texas A&M, what batter she would suggest for a romaine leaf, she simply responded, “I do not think that is a good idea, do you?”)
As Gonzales tossed a few globs of leaves into the fryer, the oil hissed and an amoeba-shape of bubbles darted for the sides of the vat. He grabbed his spoon and quickly tried to separate the pieces. “I thought for sure it’d go down,” he said. He hesitated. “There is no way this is going to hold up.”
But the lettuce was not wilting. Using the skimmer spoon, Gonzales pulled the fried leaves out of the vat and placed them in a basket on the side of the fryer. A few seconds later, he tossed about eight leaves onto a dinner plate. They looked like flattened, gnarled frogs’ legs. “I’m going to try this little piece,” he said, reaching in. He chewed for about ten seconds, revealing no expression, then looked up. “Not so bad. I mean, it’s not disgusting. I didn’t spit it out.”
I took a piece. The interior was not mushy; the stalk and veins had held on to their tough, raw consistency. But unlike eating a lettuce leaf from the garden, this was like lettuce on steroids. Oddly, it had a strong, earthy flavor with an unexpected crunch. Gonzales nodded. “It’s not like, ‘Ooh, it’s great,’ but, yeah, it’s not bad! Let’s see what happens when you finish it off.”
Other cooks might have left well enough alone. They might have moved on to a more viable project. They would have heard the ghosts of generations of fryers saying, “Abel! Stop!” But Gonzales was compulsively interested now, and his muddling had evolved from a defeatist foray into weird food science to a culinary challenge of the highest order. He assembled the finishing touches while discussing the possibilities of an even more robust lettuce or a more ambitious batter, possibly a pesto sauce or an egg wash with bread crumbs or a batter with Italian seasonings that would encase each leaf in its own personal crouton. “It’s just so out-there,” he said. He drizzled Caesar dressing on the dish and sprinkled it with shredded Parmesan cheese. We stared for a moment at what was surely the world’s first deep-fried salad. Then he handed me a fork. At first I couldn’t place the flavor, but as Gonzales started nodding and discussing its actual potential as a major draw, it dawned on me: This was the taste of blasphemy. And it was good.