The end of summer is marked by the snap and crackle of thousands of deep fryers being fired up as concessionaires rumble into town and set up shop at midways across North America. But as you sink your teeth into a hot dough ball that explodes with melted butter, you can be certain that ever-weirder deep-fried fare is coming your way from the United States, where the battle for the best and oddest fair food is waged every year by hard-working entrepreneurs up to their elbows in fat.
Take deep-fried watermelon, a thick slice of fruit coated in batter, topped with strawberry syrup and dusted with powdered sugar. It took California pizza maker Anthony Verdone one month, countless batches of coatings, four deep fryers, input from his children and some serious splatter to come up with the recipe. “Watermelon is about 92 per cent water, so we had to figure out how to put it in a deep fryer and not cause an explosion.” The secret is in the batter, that’s all he’ll say.
Verdone and his wife, Tamee, are based in Huntington Beach, Calif., but they’re on the road most of the year with their concession stand, Cardinali Woodfire Pizza, selling pizzas at county fairs all over southwestern U.S. They joined the deep-fryer craze a few years ago, when a watermelon festival extended an invite with a request for a watermelon pizza. “That wasn’t going to work,” he says of the sogginess factor.
The Verdones are neophyte fryers who channel their inner mad scientist with dreams of fame and glory in stateside competitions for the most delicious and strangest deep-fried food. So far, the payoff has been good, says Verdone, citing some fame gained through clips on the U.S. Food Network and the Travel Channel, not to mention the not insignificant financial returns from “thousands” of watermelon treats sold at $6 a pop.
American celebrity “Chicken Charlie,” or Charlie Boghosian, dominates the field of gross-out, deep-fried carnival fare. He introduced deep-fried Kool-Aid and Girl Scout cookies last year, and a chicken sandwich wedged into a Krispy Kreme donut and deep-fried before that. This year his sweet and sticky Totally Fried Cereal made its debut at the San Diego County Fair. They’re all artery-busting atrocities—and that’s the point.
Boghosian has said there’s nothing he can’t fry, and nothing he won’t. “I fried a gentleman’s shoe before, and a customer took a bite of it and she loved it,” he told ABC News this year. Ever the showman, he also mixed Chardonnay and Spam and battered and deep-fried it in front of a live audience. The challenge has been set—and met—with competitor inventions like deep-fried salsa and even beer.
At the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, general manager David Bednar says there is a long-standing maxim in the fair business: “If you fry it, they will buy it.” This year’s Ex highlights are deep-fried cola, deep-fried mac’n’cheese, deep-fried fudge and deep-fried butter, which Bednar calls “a huge home run.”
Although the CNE encourages vendors to come up with new ideas, the culinary pioneers mainly come from the U.S., where county and state fairs can last a month and managers are expected to push the envelope. Sherry Flores, the food and beverage contract manager at the L.A. County Fair, will ask concessionaires to come up with new deep-fried items. She also turns down some inventions, but declines to be specific. Visitors were offended by a stand called Heart Attack Café; it’s no longer there.
And Flores is clear about what is king at the fair, which opened Aug. 31 and closes Sept. 30. Through surveys, they have established that the No. 1 reason people come to the fair is the food. And among a wide range of menus, “deep-fried foods are probably the No. 1 draw, along with the barbeque and anything on a stick.”
It wasn’t always that way. Fairs on both sides of the border were more about agriculture or invention. Peter Male, vice-president of sales at Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition (PNE), says people come “for nostalgia and for living reflections of the life and times around them.” That includes performances, exhibits, games and rides, too. Bednar, who grew up in Texas, agrees. “I remember as a boy it was the new cars on display at the fair that were thrilling, but I don’t remember the food so much.”
And while freaky deep-fried food might be a draw at the big Canadian fairs, it’s not even on the menu at smaller venues. In Bible Hill, where the Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition is set up each year, spokesman Roy Publicover has heard about deep-fried butter and coke, but no vendors sell anything remotely like that around the province. “French fries, hamburgers, a lot of pizza. That’s what we have here.”
At the PNE, which attracted 800,000 fairgoers last year, the newcomer this year is deep-fried cheesecake from U.S. company Granny’s Food. “Now that’s something I look forward to tasting,” Male adds. And as it happens, deep-fried cheesecake is the one thing two-time State Fair of Texas judge Donovan Lewis can’t do without. The talk-show host for a Dallas sports radio station is a self-declared “long-time fairgoer” who loves to “pig out and then walk it off.”
Each year since 2005, the State Fair of Texas has held the Big Tex Choice Awards, which gives out two prizes: one for taste and one for creativity. “They are completely different things,” says Lewis, “what is the tastiest and what is the most creative.” Eight finalists are chosen from dozens of concessionaires. “These people put their heart and soul into their work. They’re right there looking at you and you don’t want to hurt their spirit,” he says. “You have to just be completely honest.”
A highlight was the 2009 best-taste winner: deep-fried peach slices with a cream dip. “Very delectable, big time!” he exclaims. “It was the best out of the two years I judged.”
A less fond memory was a fried Pop-Tart. “It wasn’t really nasty, but I don’t eat them in the first place and it was an odd taste.” Ditto for deep-fried beer. “It got the biggest buzz because it was very weird,” he says, not to mention it won the prize for most creative award. “But because the beer inside was hot, well, if it was in a restaurant I would send it back.”
He would love to try Verdone’s deep-fried watermelon. “Everything has been so creative.” He cites fried pickles, now a commonplace menu item in Texas restaurants. “Every year I see the list at the fair and think, my goodness, it’s already been done. It’s unbelievable.”
Verdone says if you don’t deliver a tasty item, it’s a waste of time and money. The ideas should be new, but if they’re poorly executed, people don’t buy. “A lot of people use pancake batters because they’re easy. We don’t. We make our own and everyone is always asking us to tell them what’s in our batter. We won’t tell anyone,” and that includes his buddy, Chicken Charlie. Verdone custom-built a wood-fired oven for Boghosian soon after they met at a fair. “We became very good friends,” he says. “He’s pretty creative. I’ve looked at a lot of things he did.” That includes Boghosian’s attention to batter. Chicken Charlie’s signature success was in 2001, when he copied another vendor’s idea to deep-fry a Twinkie. He claims he sold 10,000 that year at the L.A. County Fair due to a number of factors, including an egg wash that made it light, not greasy.
For Lewis, it comes down to bragging rights for both the consumer and the creator. “A lot of the creative part comes from wondering, ‘How the heck is that going to taste?’ And for us, the ultimate intrigue is to at least put our lips around it and say, ‘Yeah, I tried that.’ ”
On the phone from his camper van at the Sonoma County Fair in California, Verdone says he hopes to make it to the State Fair of Texas competition, possibly next year. He’s on a high: his latest invention, a deep-fried upside-down pineapple cake on a stick took awards this summer for best overall fried food and most unique food. “I still can’t really believe it.”
What’s next? Although he admits his wife is tired of trying new and peculiar deep-fried recipes like the licorice he experimented with recently, Verdone is thinking about quitting pizza. In the meantime, he’s working fast to perfect a deep-fried Italian rum cake on a stick made with a cannoli-cream filling and coated in pizza dough instead of batter. Like the watermelon confection, he says the results have to be like wizardry. “Your taste buds are being tricked because you don’t know what you’re biting into. That’s the beauty of it.”