Melanie Linnear is senior vice president of concessions for the State Fair of Texas, in Dallas.
Fairgoers would always come to the fair, and they’d know: “I’m going to get a turkey leg or a funnel cake, cotton candy, caramel apple”—standard items. The only fried foods the first few decades were the funnel cake and the corny dog. Eventually, vendors offered a few other fried items like the fried Twinkie and the fried Oreo, but there wasn’t a lot of interest in fried foods as a category.
That changed after 2004, when Ron Black, who was senior vice president of food service, and Sue Gooding, who was vice president of public relations, were sitting with Tom Kalahar, a friend of the fair, trying to think of a way to make vendors think outside the box. Tom said, “What if we held a creative competition for the food vendors?”
That first year, in 2005, we challenged the vendors with an Elvis Presley theme. Though the items didn’t have to be fried, the two winners that year were Viva Las Vegas Fried Ice Cream and a fried peanut-butter-jelly-banana sandwich.
Since then, we’ve seen winners like fried bubblegum, fried Jell-O, even a Funnel Cake Bacon Queso Burger! These days, fairgoers come in looking for the craziest fried things they can find. We used to have a shirt that people could wear that said, “I tried them all,” and vendors could mark off items on its checklist. One entry that didn’t make it far that I recall: a fried Caesar salad. The judges thought it was good, but it just didn’t take off. People don’t come to the fair to eat a Caesar salad.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “What If We Fried Everything?” Subscribe today.