Eleven years ago, when my Texan boyfriend—now my Texan husband—invited me to the State Fair of Texas in his hometown of Dallas, I thought I knew what to expect. In my native Midwest, state fairs are a rite of passage. My hometown’s Indiana State Fair was a land of funnel cakes and fried Oreos, lemon shake-ups, carnival rides, pie contests, and a lot of farm animals. I figured we’d eat some fried food, look at hogs and cows, and maybe hit the Ferris Wheel. The fact that we never actually stumbled upon the animal barns that first year was the first major difference between Texas’s fair and what I was used to.
Instead of primarily championing agriculture, Texas’s state fair is a love letter to Texas itself. The fair’s beloved mascot, Big Tex—a fifty-five-foot-tall cowboy that welcomes visitors with a booming “Howdy, folks!”—is the quintessential cowboy in a ten-gallon hat and fancifully painted boots. Brisket is as ubiquitous in the food stalls as funnel cake. The nearly three-hundred-acre fairgrounds are filled with carnival rides, massive shopping centers (at least a quarter of which sell mattresses), food vendors, beer gardens, a sizable petting zoo, a car show, and a football stadium where Texas and Oklahoma stage an annual showdown on the busiest day of the fair. The evening parade inevitably plays “Deep in the Heart of Texas”—and you will clap during it. Of course there are livestock and craft barns, but the State Fair of Texas shines brightest in what it does differently.
For my husband and me, and many other fairgoers, the main draw is the endless array of ambitious new foods. Since 2005, the State Fair of Texas has held the Big Tex Choice Awards, crowning the event’s best tasting and most creative creations. Early winners were typical deep-fried fare—a fried peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwich; fried Coke; deep-fried butter—but as the years passed, concession stand owners had to get more imaginative with their offerings. Sometime around the mid-2010s, lobster dishes began appearing among the finalists, as did fancy alcoholic beverages: a funnel cake ale from a local brewer and a frozen bacon margarita that was so vividly neon green I swear it glowed. So, every year, we fly from our home in Atlanta to Dallas and arrive at Fair Park bright and early on opening day. We start our morning with a Fletcher’s Corny Dog (a staple first offered at the fair in 1942), take a selfie with Big Tex, and begin eating our way through the year’s list of award finalists.
Among the highlights in our years of fairs: Fried Thanksgiving Dinner, a deep-fried ball of turkey and stuffing with gravy and cranberry sauce for dipping. Fried Jell-O, which was essentially a very good jelly doughnut. A Funnel Cake Bacon Queso Burger that had no right to be as delicious as it was. The Fat Smooth—cream puffs fried in beignet batter—had the best name. The Armadillo was an adorable animal-shaped pastry filled with cookie butter ice cream. We’ve ordered the Deep Fried Bacon Cheeseburger Basket—essentially a chimichanga filled with hamburger, cheese, bacon, French fries, and onion rings with a thousand island dipping sauce—almost every year since we first tried it in 2015. This year, the standout dish was Deep Fried Pho, a fried burrito filled with beef, rice noodles, jalapeño, cilantro, and bean sprouts, accompanied with pho broth for dipping.
The dishes are as decadent as they are innovative—we learned quickly to split each item to save both money and room in our stomachs. We also learned to alternate savory and sweet items and space out snack stops throughout the day. (Heaven help you if you try to devour several deep-fried desserts at the end of the night.) The more years we attended, the more traditions we formed. We delighted in the soaring hawks and parrots of the World of Birds show and the adventurous, frisbee-catching, high-jumping stunt dogs. We tasted samples of local beer, iced coffee, hot sauces, peanut brittle, wine slushies, candied pecans, and every variety of sour-cream-based dip you could possibly imagine. The car show provided a much-needed, air-conditioned break from the Texas heat; my husband would laugh as I climbed into the enormous Texas Edition trucks, my five-foot-three frame looking comically tiny in the driver’s seat. We watched the Starlight Parade and the Illumination Sensation show—a pyrotechnic, firework, laser, water, and dance extravaganza choreographed to pop hits that, I must admit, was a lot more fun when it included a hilariously corny video set to George Strait’s “Texas.” One year, we stumbled upon a building filled with the most enormous live rabbits we’ve ever seen; we never found them again. We stayed from when the gates opened to when they closed, walking, eating, and reveling in the spectacle.
But as we approach our mid-thirties, we’ve found that the twelve-hour day we love so much is getting harder to do. We’ve still got the stamina to walk ten miles around the fairgrounds, but we feel it in our joints the next day. We can no longer sustain ourselves solely on refillable diet soda in a Big Tex–branded cup—having two massive water bottles in our backpack is a necessity. Our stomachs protest the all-fried diet more than they did a decade ago. And despite trying fewer dishes, we’re still spending a lot more money: Food prices have increased dramatically in the past few years. The Deep Fried Pho we adored this year cost a whopping $24.
But even if our State Fair visit stops being an annual affair, or if we stay for a half day rather than a whole one, it will always hold an important place in our hearts. It’s truly an unparalleled experience. A few years ago, my husband and I eagerly visited the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, one of the largest and most famous fairs in the country. With the Iowa caucus just six months away, we took delight in walking along booths for every thinkable political candidate. We admired the butter cow and gawked at some extra-large, prize-winning pumpkins. But it just wasn’t the same. The corn dog tasted different. There was no jolly cowboy or display of oversized trucks. The fried foods were more subdued. It was a perfectly fine fair, but it just wasn’t the State Fair of Texas.