Walking through the State Fair of Texas with a fresh-cut Papa Loca from Lerma’s Gorditas makes you feel like a celebrity. Other visitors gasp and stare. They smile when they see you walk past the Cotton Bowl with a spiral-cut potato, skewered and flash-fried, reaching from your eager hands up toward the sky, as if it’s trying to reach the smiling maw of Big Tex himself. There are weirder foods at the state fair, more beloved ones, more uniquely Texan items being fried or chopped or smoked, but few with such immediate charisma. Everybody who comes to the state fair is there to eat something they already know they like, but in a novel way.

The 24-day event fills so many of my fellow Texans with a childlike glee, which is on vivid display in photos by Allison V. Smith. Food is the main draw, and who doesn’t like an event geared to indulge our appetite with an array of batter-fried novelties—but was that the whole appeal? I had never been to the state fair, and I wanted to find out what it was about the affair that brings families back year after year. Even without the Papa Loca, folks were generally happy to meet me—happy to meet everyone—and pose for a portrait, because they were all in a pretty great mood.

The State Fair of Texas was canceled in 2020 for the same reason most things were canceled in 2020 (a comparatively minuscule drive-through version popped up in its stead), and those who attended the first day of the 2021 installment had missed it dearly. They come three or four (or ten or eleven) times over three-plus weeks to try the best food at the state fair. They bring their kids. They come alone. They show up with groups of coworkers. They fly in to meet up with the rest of the members of obscure Facebook groups under Big Tex. They sneak off to attend on a Friday while their kids are at school, and then come back on the weekend with the whole family. They line up dozens deep for Fletcher’s corny dogs, then walk around with little flecks of mustard in their mustaches. Missing the state fair in 2020 hurt them deeply, in their hearts, and they could not wait to return. “I never miss it,” said Christopher Mosely. “It was a real bummer last year, when all you could do was drive through. It feels great to be back.”

The state fair is distinctly old-fashioned, an event that’s been held more or less annually since 1886 (prior to 2020, the last time it was canceled was during World War II, when Fair Park was being used by the military) and hasn’t changed a whole lot in that time. The attractions in 2021 are the sort that attracted fairgoers of generations past to the site: Horses! Fried Foods! Rides! A petting zoo, pig races, live music, midway games, sculptures carved out of butter—the same stuff that was already corny when Pat Boone and Ann-Margret sang about them in State Fair, set at the State Fair of Texas, back in 1962. But that’s more or less the point of the event, as I found when talking to the array of fairgoers who posed for portraits.

I met Joan Richardson, a real estate agent from Frisco, in the line for Fletcher’s corny dogs. Getting in that line was the first thing she did upon arriving at Fair Park, but she had a lot on her agenda. “The food, the cars. I don’t know if they’ve done the carved pumpkins yet, but this is just trip one,” she said. She’d be back two or three more times, she told me, just like she had most every year since moving to the area as a kid in 1974. “It’s always the same thing,” she said wistfully. What did she do last year? “I was sad,” she told me. “I was very sad. I didn’t have a corny dog.”

Richardson peer-pressured me into trying a corny dog—“You’re from Texas Monthly and you’ve never had one?”—and I got the feeling after taking a few bites that the key ingredient in the Fletcher’s recipe is nostalgia for all of the corny dogs you ate at the state fair in years past.

State Fair of Texas food
Chris Sanchez and Maaz Satti stopped by Fried Jesus’s booth for fried jambalaya and fried PB&J, respectively.Allison V. Smith

Serving up those fried whatevers is a unique experience too in 2021. I asked Abel Gonzales, a five-time Big Tex Choice Award winner, how he felt about being back. He was thrilled—he loves the fair, loves frying things, added a “Fair Stuff” menu to his Dallas restaurant Cocina Italiano during the pandemic—but admitted that filling out a staff is harder this year than in the past. “We’re good right now, but I can’t tell you that we will be tomorrow,” he told me. “We were struggling last night [at the food preview], and I think it’s going to be like that the whole time we’re here.” Gonzales, something of a prophet in the world of the deep fryer, is known as Fried Jesus for creations like Fried Coke (Big Tex Choice Award winner, 2005) and Deep Fried Butter (Big Tex Choice Award winner, 2009), which have gone on to be staples not only at the State Fair of Texas but at similar events around the country. Even for Fried Jesus, 2020 was a hard year. “I was looking under seat cushions for money to pay bills,” he said. He was cautiously optimistic about 2021. “Hopefully we have a good little run, I hope, I hope, I hope.”

A single fried Oreo is a spectacular confection; eating one makes you feel like a baby on TikTok who just had ice cream for the first time. Eating dozens of items whose common ingredient is fried dough one after another, ad literal nauseam, makes them all indistinguishable. If I’ve learned anything from the past eighteen months, it’s that the immense prosperity I’ve been fortunate enough to have been born into—a prosperity that allows us to take sugars and fats and proteins, things that humans have only for a brief blip in our species’ existence had such unfettered access to, and turn them into absurdist spectacles—is more fragile than it previously seemed. I wanted to celebrate living through a time of abundance, not make a mockery of it. Where’s the line? I’m not certain, but if even the weirdly delicious Deep Fried I-35 (peaches, brisket, Dr Pepper barbecue sauce, all served atop a fried kolache) doesn’t cross it, state fair chefs will have to keep looking.

Even while clutching my Papa Loca, I couldn’t help but think about the pandemic context under which the event is taking place. There were posters—based on the famous art deco image from the 1936 state fair, celebrating the Texas centennial—reminding visitors to mask up when entering buildings, and free COVID-19 vaccines on offer a few yards behind Big Tex. There are some places one can go—Sixth Street, maybe, or an Applebee’s in Montgomery County—where it feels like there is no pandemic, there was never a pandemic, and whatever we lived through in 2020 was a weird mass hallucination. I thought the state fair might be one of those places, but for the most part, it was not. While masked faces were a rare sight while strolling the midway, it’s easy enough to spend the entire day outside, and most folks seemed to at least have a mask on their person for when they went indoors.

State Fair of Texas vaccination tent
Latrell Anderson, just moments away from getting his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.Allison V. Smith

Under the shadow of Big Tex, I met Latrell Anderson, a 21-year-old visitor who came down from St. Louis to attend the fair with his uncle. He was waiting in line, but not for a corny dog—rather, Anderson was getting his first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, which came with twenty free food tickets. The vaccinations at the fair weren’t exactly the hottest item on the agenda—most of the handful of folks I saw get one were already vaccinated and taking advantage of the Biden administration’s newly announced booster shot policy—but his uncle suggested he do it, and he agreed. “I was never opposed to getting the vaccine,” he told me. “I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.” He wore a face mask that he took off to try the fried pizza (“nothing really special”) and fried cheesecake (“ten out of ten”), and seemed comfortable navigating the balance between life in a pandemic and life at the state fair.

The appeal of the fair to a newcomer like Anderson seems to be tied to the circumstances under which we’ve all been living. He hadn’t been able to do much for fun last year, and most of the other first-timers I spoke to suggested that they were excited to go to the fair just because they could, because it was happening. Linda Morrissette, who drove in from San Antonio with her husband, their two boys, and her seventeen-year-old cousin, had planned to make a full weekend of activity: the fair, and also Six Flags. She’d only just gotten to Fair Park when I met her, but it was already a success in her book. “This is our first time, we just started, and I bought a bed!” she told me. She hadn’t come in seeking a bed, but the state fair is a place of unexpected delights, and she’d felt compelled to check out the Mattress Firm–sponsored parts of the event and just fell in love.

The food at the fair is the first thing everyone talks about, and for good reason—most of this stuff does not exist in any other context—but it’s all a collection of sensory experiences. The fair is a place of unique tastes, a place where games must be touched with your hands and not just swiped across your screen, where the smell of the animals wafts from the livestock birthing barn out into the rest of the grounds, where the cacophony of music and other visitors and the hucksterlike come-ons from food vendors all blend together, where the butter sculptures must be seen to be believed, where all of that comingles with the ineffable experiences of novelty and nostalgia. This sort of full-sensory emotional experience was denied to fairgoers in 2020. The pandemic that took the state fair of 2020 is both still ongoing and not coming to an end anytime soon. You can see it in the smiles of the visitors: if this is just life for a while, then what else are we to do besides live some semblance of our lives as best we can?

For a couple million Texans, their idea of living includes gathering outside and lining up for the Fletcher’s corny dogs of their childhoods, and giving their own kids new experiences to be nostalgic about for decades into the future. Attending the state fair in 2021 is an act of hope: that the traditions of the past will extend into the future, even after a year that’s made us all a little more cognizant of the sudden ways life can change. As these photos capture, there’s an optimism to the state fair this year. If someone could figure out how to deep fry that, they’d be serving up something that all of us—state fair lifers, state fair rookies, and those who don’t intend to set foot within ten miles of Fair Park this fall—have worked up an appetite for.