Skip Fletcher stood at one of his stands at Fair Park this week, hovering over the deep fryer, watching his beloved corny dogs float in hot oil.
"First corny dog of the season."
He held one in each hand, waving them as if he were conducting an orchestra. He took several bites.
"They're so good," he shouted. "I can't quit eating them!"
Friday is showtime for the crusty, crunchy corny dog, the king of fried foods at the State Fair of Texas.
It's showtime, too, for the Fletchers, the family that created the corny dog in 1942 and continues to lead the operation 70 years later.
The State Fair wouldn't be the State Fair without corny dogs, many say, and the corny dog wouldn't be the corny dog without the State Fair.
The Fletcher brothers who created them, Neil and Carl, passed away in the '80s, but Neil's gregarious sons, Skip and Bill, continue the legacy. About 500,000 corny dogs are sold at the fair each year.
Millions of people have devoured the fried treats, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Julia Child and Oprah Winfrey. Through the decades, the Fletchers have made millions of dollars.
But don't think the Fletchers have had it easy.
Skip Fletcher has lost three sons. A few years ago, his daughter was abducted. Bill Fletcher has lost a wife and a son.
Skip and Bill's brother, Henry, was left mentally disabled after a car crash in the '50s and died in 2009.
Then, last year, there was a family feud. Bill sued Skip, claiming that he was restricting his access to family trusts. Skip denied that, saying he was ensuring the family business survives the second generation.
The brothers resolved the matter and are on good terms.
"It may be a bit top heavy with tragedy, but you just have to take it," said SkipFletcher, 78, who doesn't mince words. "I don't look back. If you look back and you think about that kind of stuff too much, you want to go out back and kill yourself."
Despite the sorrow, Skip and Bill smile easily and joke often. They are showmen and they love the crowds who come back to the fair each year for their "meal on a stick."
But the time will soon come when Skip and Bill, 68, must pass on the baton — or is it the corny dog stick? — to younger family members.
"It's something that brought us to the dance," Skip said, "and we're going to dance with it as long as we can."
There are three things that people associate with the State Fair of Texas, said Nancy Wiley, the State Fair historian and author of The Great State Fair of Texas. They are the giant talking cowboy Big Tex, the annual Texas-OU football game and the corny dog.
"It's the fair and it's a good time, a family time, and these are 'our' corny dogs, just like he's 'our' Big Tex," Wiley said.
Neil and Carl Fletcher were vaudeville performers in Dallas. They would stop to eat at a place operated by a guy they called "the Old Dutchman." In the oven, muffin tins were filled with hot dogs and cornmeal batter.
The Fletchers thought they tasted great and figured there was a way to make money from the snacks.
They realized they had to speed up the cooking process, so they ditched the oven and tried frying them. They spent months experimenting.
In 1942, they sold the fried hot dogs at the summer midway at Fair Park.
But some say a corn dog called the pronto pup came first, making its debut a year earlier in Oregon.
That doesn't bother Skip.
"I'm kind of like - what was his name - the old Liberace," he said. "They made fun of Liberace, but he laughed all the way to the bank."
It hasn't been all laughs for the Fletchers.
At a funeral for a family member, the pastor told those who had gathered: "The Fletchers have had their share of sorrow."
In 2008, Skip's daughter, Amber Fletcher, was kidnapped for most of a day, blindfolded and bound with duct tape.
Police arrested three suspects and she was found unharmed. She's doing better now, her dad said.
Skip has lost three sons: one in a car accident; a second, a drug addict, committed suicide; and a third died from liver disease.
Bill's wife died from breast cancer when his kids were young. His son, Benjamin, was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and committed suicide in 2009. Bill operates a drug rehabilitation facility in Kemp called the House of Benjamin, where he hopes to "break the chains of addiction."
"I'm barely beginning to get over it," Bill said. "I'm beginning to heal."
Last year, Bill sued his brother over issues surrounding family trusts formed from corny dog sales.
Bill claimed in court documents that Skip, who was the trustee, had changed the trusts so that he enlarged his interest at the expense of others.
"These assets have been parasitically pilfered to the detriment of the beneficiaries of the trusts," the suit stated.
Skip said in court documents that he took "appropriate actions" under the will to insure the corny dog's future, and said that Bill wasn't working enough at the State Fair.
Documents show that a judge ordered Skip last fall to deposit a check to the court for 42.5 percent of the net profits from the 2011 State Fair.
Soon after, a $460,000 check was submitted, which would indicate that last year's net profits were about $1.1 million.
"That's probably close," Skip said. "I would assume that's probably right."
The Fletchers declined to say much about the lawsuit.
"I thought it was ridiculous," Skip said. "We just made a bunch of lawyers very rich."
Bill said he settled the matter with his brother "in love and mutual respect."
Fewer bites this year
Bill and Skip were playful this week at the State Fair as they stood at a corny dog stand, dipping their dogs in mustard.
Ketchup is served to appease the Yankees, they say.
Skip wore a wide smile and corny dog bling - a skinny gold corny dog earring and a larger corny dog necklace made with sapphire eyes, a diamond nose, ruby mouth and mustard on its head.
Skip, who's in charge of quality control, has typically eaten 48 corny dogs during each fair.
His doctor has ordered him to reduce his salt intake, so Skip plans to take bites instead of downing entire dogs.
Practically everyone who's eaten a corny dog has fallen in love at first bite.
Consider Oprah's crazed reaction in 2009 when she taped her talk show at the State Fair.
"Woo hoo hoo," she declared. "Oh my God. I'm gonna want another one of these. That's good. Oh, this is fabulous. This is good!
Skip said Oprah asked for a sack of corny dogs to go, then warned her entourage: "Do not touch any of these."
But, for Bill, nothing tops meeting Mikhail Gorbachev, who declared that the corny dog was like a Russian fried sausage.
"My God," Bill Fletcher said, "I'm shaking hands, looking eye to eye and serving a corny dog" to the former Soviet leader. "Now Oprah's big, but she's not that big. She didn't have her finger on the button."