In a food contest that has defied science with oddities such as fried beer, the State Fair of Texas' annual Big Tex Choice Awards is taking a step back in time. Fried Jell-O, a simple dish of cherry Jell-O battered and dipped in the fryer, then topped with powdered sugar, whipped cream and a cherry, was named Best Taste at an awards ceremony Sunday at Dallas' Fair Park.
"I never thought a 10-cent bag of Jell-O would put me in the spotlight," said Ruth Hauntz, who, at 82 years old, is the second-oldest concessionaire at the State Fair of Texas. It's her first time winning a Big Tex Choice Award, though she has operated Ruth's Tamale House at the fair since 1987.
A panel of six judges — five local celebrities and one audience member — chose State Fair Cookie Fries as Most Creative. Serial concessionaire Isaac Rousso's crinkle-cut desserts come in chocolate chip or sprinkles flavor and are served with strawberry or chocolate dipping sauce. Rousso is the man behind award-winning dishes such as the fried Cuban roll and the smoky bacon margarita.
Hundreds of State Fair of Texas superfans tasted all eight foods in a pre-State Fair event that cost $100 and benefits a Texas college scholarship program. Most of the judges were sure to skip lunch before gorging on so many rich dishes.
"I'm just going to take my hat off and loosen my belt," joked Don Gay, a world-champion bull rider and a judge at the event. He was joined on the judging panel by Deep Fried Fit blogger Mai Lyn Ngo, Dallas chef Kent Rathbun, 97.1 The Eagle on-air personality Dan O'Malley, Dallas City Council member Tiffinni Young and audience member Jon Gonzalez.
The Big Tex Choice Awards are one of today's most well-known events at the 130-year-old State Fair of Texas, even though the food contest is just 12 years new. If you can believe it, most of the lifespan of the State Fair of Texas did not include culinary oddities such as fried Coke, fried butter and the infamous fried bubblegum. In fact, the Fletcher family didn't sell its first corny dog until 1942.
Back then, an original corny dog cost 15 cents. Today, it costs $5 in coupons. Most other fried delicacies at the fair go for $5 to $10. Last year's chicken-fried lobster with Champagne gravy cost a record-breaking 60 coupons, or $30. Absurd? Concessionaire Abel Gonzales occasionally sold out of the crispy crustaceans.
Although the State Fair has made headlines for its surprising foods, being fried isn't a requirement. The entrees don't even have to be "food": In 2014, concessionaire Justin Martinez debuted funnel-cake ale and won Most Creative. The next year, Rousso's smoky bacon margarita won the same award.
For some of the Texans who enter the Big Tex Choice Awards, concocting State Fair foods is a year-round task, even though the State Fair of Texas runs just 24 days, from Sept. 30 to Oct. 23 this year in Dallas.
Clint Probst, whose fried chicken and dumplings was a finalist, keeps a running list year-round of foods he'd like to enter into the Big Tex Choice Awards. One year, Probst served a whopping 40,000 servings from his booth. The State Fair is big business, he says.
For serious fairgoers Anthony Vecchione and Lynette Page, tasting all eight is part of the State Fair of Texas experience.
"She's a native Texan, I'm from New York, but I got here as fast as I could," Vecchione says. They have made it a tradition to sample all the new foods since 2006.
Take it from these seasoned foodies: Gonzales' fried cookie dough, which is not a new item, remains the best concessions item at the State Fair of Texas.
A look at the 2016 Big Tex Choice Awards finalists:
Caribbean Pineapple Korn-a-Copia
- What is it: a scooped-out pineapple filled with grilled chicken, shrimp, rice, salsa and pineapple rum glaze
Deep-fried Bacon Burger Dog Slider on a Stick
- What is it: a skewer of fried hamburger, hot dog and bacon, topped with a fried pickle
Deep-fried Pulled Pork Funyuns Dings
- What is it: Funyuns, along with pulled pork, pepper jack cheese, pineapple and bacon, battered and deep fried
Fernie's Down Home Chicken Pot Pie Pocket with Mac 'n Cheese Dip
- What is it: a pot pie, deep fried, served with a sharp cheddar sauce inspired by mac and cheese
Fried Jell-O — Best Taste
- What is it: fried cherry Jell-O topped with powdered sugar, whipped cream and a cherry
Injectable Great Balls of BBQ
- What is it: shredded brisket and barbecue sauce, rolled into balls and fried, served atop coleslaw. A syringe full of barbecue sauce lets you add more sauce if desired.
Southern Fried Chicken and Dumplins
- What is it: shredded chicken, dough and gravy rolled into balls and fried, served with biscuit bites and gravy
State Fair Cookie Fries — Most Creative
- What is it: cookies shaped like fries and deep fried, available in two flavors: chocolate chip or sprinkles. Each is served with strawberry or chocolate sauce.