Fletcher's Corny Dogs are a State Fair of Texas tradition.

Fletcher's Corny Dogs are a State Fair of Texas tradition.

DMN file photo
Fried bubblegum was a new addition to the State Fair of Texas in 2011. The roster of famous fried foods in the decades before it weren't quite so strange.

Fried bubblegum was a new addition to the State Fair of Texas in 2011. The roster of famous fried foods in the decades before it weren't quite so strange.

Louis DeLuca

Think back to when the State Fair of Texas didn't have a wacky fried food contest. You shouldn't have to think far: The Big Tex Choice Awards -- and their headline-making oddities such as fried Coke and fried Butter -- are barely a decade old.

The fair, on the other hand, is pushing 130 years. 

Even back in the late 1800s, the fair was fixated on food, says State Fair of Texas spokeswoman Karissa Condoianis. But church groups and other volunteer organizations made much simpler dishes: pork chops, sandwiches and sausage, for instance.

Beloved fair fare such as corny dogs and funnel cakes came much later, in the mid- to late-1900s. It was those fair foods, and more importantly, the concessionaire families behind them, that have built the fair into an internationally-known food event. 

"When we came up with them, nobody on the planet knew what a corny dog was," says Skip Fletcher, part of the famous Fletcher's Corny Dogs family.

His parents started battering and frying hot dogs on a stick at the State Fair of Texas in 1942. They sold for 15 cents each.

Clearly, corny dogs caught on, and so did many other concessions we now consider staples. Here's a look at four families that have helped shape the State Fair of Texas' food:

Famous smoked bologna

The barbecue at Little Bob's is popular, but the smoked bologna draws the biggest crowds.

The barbecue at Little Bob's is popular, but the smoked bologna draws the biggest crowds.

Courtesy of the State Fair of Texas

The first African American vendor at the State Fair of Texas was turned down twice before fair organizers finally agreed to let him in.

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"It was rough, by my understanding," says Huey Nash, the son of the original owner, the late Huey Percy "Little Bob" Nash. "There were no vendors from people of color. There was only one day we could go to the fair, and it was called Negro Day."

His dad must have been charming on that third try, because in 1964, he opened Little Bob's Bar-B-Q stand at the State Fair. The family sold all kinds of barbecue over the years, Nash says, the smoked bologna is the best seller.

Nicknamed the South Dallas Steak Sandwich, since bologna is less expensive than steak, Little Bob's famous sandwich is made with smoked beef bologna served sliced between two pieces of bread.

"It's still a hot novelty after so many years," Nash says. Even Mark Cuban, Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer have tried it.

Words of wisdom from a concessionaire:"My father said, 'Don't nothing happen during the fair. Don't nobody get hurt,'" recalls Huey Nash, current co-owner of Little Bob's BBQ. "The fair is our moneymaker."

Find Little Bob's BBQ's two stands at the fair: Nimitz Terrace (across from Children's Barnyard) and Tower Building.

Funnel cakes

Funnel cakes, if you can believe it, have only been at the fair since the '80s.

Funnel cakes, if you can believe it, have only been at the fair since the '80s.

Louis DeLuca/Staff Photographer

You can give credit to a square dancers lodge in Branson, Missouri, as the reason the State Fair of Texas serves funnel cakes. Christi Erpillo, today a busy State Fair of Texas concessionaire and Big Tex Choice Awards winner, says her parents first had funnel cakes on a square dancing trip to the Midwest and decided they needed to try it in Texas.

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Erpillo can't remember the year; it was sometime in the '80s, she says. "We did not know we were going to become a State Fair legend, or else we would have paid closer attention to the year," she jokes.

The family has served all kinds of food in their nearly 50 years at the fair: ice cream, roast beef sandwiches, funnel cakes, plus Erpillo's well-known Big Tex Choice Awards entries, which include fried peaches and cream and her latest winner, Fernie's Holy Moly Carrot Cake Roly.

The dish is named after her mom, Wanda Fern Winter, who is 89 years old and still works the fair every year.

"It's so neat to see what she and Daddy created," Erpillo says. "We created a family legacy."

Words of wisdom from a concessionaire: "I used to hate working here because all my friends were coming to the fair, or partying or whatever. But now, I absolutely love it. You get to be a hostess to 3 million people over 24 days," says Christi Erpillo, now 63, who began working at the fair at age 17.

Find Christi Erpillo's five booths at the fair: two at The Dock and others at Cantina, Lone Star Lounge and Sky Way Porch.

Sutter's salt water taffy

Sutter's hops around to seven state fairs. But none are quite like the State Fair of Texas.

Sutter's hops around to seven state fairs. But none are quite like the State Fair of Texas.

Randy Squires/AP

Sutter's taffy stands for nostalgia. All of the machines inside the Sutter's salt water taffy stand are originals from the 1920s, which is impressive, given that Sutter's didn't arrive at the State Fair of Texas until three decades later.

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Sutter's got it start at the Illinois State Fair in the 1920s. It then nabbed a spot at the year-long New York's World Fair in 1939, where the family reportedly sold 1 million boxes of taffy that year, says current co-owner Vickie King. Sutter's landed at the State Fair of Texas in 1953, when, just for perspective, the original Big Tex statue was a year old. (He was speechless that year, too; he started talking in '53.)

Today, Sutter's is nearly 100 years old. It's been sold to King and her husband Frank King, who vow to leave the original owners' name on the business and keep pulling taffy the old-fashioned way.

Some things never change, anyhow, King says. Vanilla is still the No. 1 seller. Black walnut, she says, is the one people in Texas ask about most.

Words of wisdom from a concessionaire: "The State Fair of Texas is different than any other state fair we do, and we do seven in a row," co-owner Vickie King says. "It's kind of the big daddy of them all. Everybody wants to get to the State Fair of Texas."

Find Sutter's five stands at the fair: Grand, MLK, Front Gate, Centennial and Fun Way.

Fletcher's Corny Dogs

Fletcher's is a family business. Here's Jett Warner, great-grandson of Skip Fletcher, founder of Fletcher's Original Corny Dog.

Fletcher's is a family business. Here's Jett Warner, great-grandson of Skip Fletcher, founder of Fletcher's Original Corny Dog.

Tom Fox

Fletcher's might be the most famous food family at the State Fair. Skip Fletcher, like many of his long-time concessionaire colleagues, was given no choice but to participate in the family business. In fact, he took another job as an airline pilot in his earlier years, but each fall he'd take a long vacation so he could be in Dallas for those 24 days.

Vegetarian or not, you need to try the new veggie corny dog at the State Fair of Texas

He was 7 years old when his parents started futzing in the kitchen to come up with the correct corny dog batter. "My mother didn't cook a meal in the kitchen for three months," Fletcher recalls. "We were taste-testing corny dogs!" 

Fletcher, now 81 years old, was the chief taste tester, as he tells it. "They ran everything by me," he says. "I'd say, 'It's lacking a little this, a little that.'" The cornmeal batter recipe they settled upon is still a secret.

Fletcher's now sells half a million corny dogs at the State Fair of Texas alone. Fletcher is all in: "I eat the jalapeño corny dog for breakfast every morning."

Words of wisdom from a concessionaire: "There's 100 ways you can screw up a corny dog," says Skip Fletcher. "My thing is, corny dogs are simple but they ain't easy."

Find six Fletcher's Corny Dogs stands at the fair: Cotton Bowl Plaza, Midway, Nimitz, MLK, Grand and Fun Way.

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