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