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It’s hard to imagine Michelle Obama approving of Abel Gonzales, Jr.’s food. But Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King tried it and countless thousands love it. “Last year we pushed the envelope,” says Gonzales. “We got a lot of attention, good and bad. Fat being fried in fat was shocking to people,” he says of his award-winning Fried Butter.
If the Food Police were in charge, Gonzales knows he’d be a lifer, but says thankfully, “my fans outnumber the people who are not so high on what I do.” What he does is figure out ways to fry stuff that tastes really good like butter, Coke and chocolate, and make them taste even better – as far as he is concerned. “It’s all trial and error,” he says. “I made really bad fried food before I made really good fried food.”
Healthy it’s not, but it’s available for just three weeks each year at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, the officially designated Fried Food Capital of Texas, which runs from September 24th to October 17th in 2010. His food is so popular that even in these dim economic times Gonzales was able to quite his job in computers and just work the Fair, which explains his good-natured take on his critics. “I get what they say but it’s not stuff you’d eat every day and it’s not a way of life. It’s just fun. I use only trans fat-free vegetable oil. Besides, you walk it off at the Fair.”
Gonzales has won the Fair’s coveted Big Tex Choice Awards an unprecedented four times despite having no formal training other than working in his Dad’s restaurant when he was growing up. “I’m not a chef in any way. But I made my bones in his kitchen,” says the third generation Dallas native, “working my way around pots and vats of grease. I’ve always loved fried foods.” He says that like a lot of Southerners he grew up on it. He’s always had a sweet tooth so while he appreciated typical fair treats - fried Snickers, Oreos and Twinkies - he wanted to do more than just batter and fry. He wanted to raise the bar.
His first fryer foray was Texas-shaped sopapillas, fried dough served with honey, cinnamon sugar, whipped cream and strawberries. They did well, but deep-fried peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwiches - “bananas were the Elvis factor” - put him on the map. They got him his first Big Tex Choice Award in the Best Taste category in 2005. He’d never sold more than 100 items in a day before, but opening weekend that year he sold more than 1,000 of the sandwiches, which he quartered and dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Fried Coke, a homemade deep-fried Coke-drenched doughnut hole served in a cup with cherry Coke sauce, Coke-flavored whipped cream, powdered sugar and a cherry on top got him Most Creative in 2006.
His creative process is stress-free. “If I told you that I struggled to come up with ideas it would be a bold-faced lie. An idea pops into my head and I turn it around, mull it over, come back to it. Takes about a week or two. The cooking’s always the easiest part.”
One year, he overheard a group of college girls at the supermarket complaining about their boyfriends and planning to “pig-out on cookie dough.” He bought some dough, started experimenting and came up with Texas Fried Cookie Dough, Best Taste winner in 2007. “I don’t do this with a hard fry. I want the whole thing to be light.” If homemade pecan, coconut and chocolate-chip studded, batter-dipped cookie dough can be considered “light.”
He resists the pressure to emphasize bigger, better and greater every year, having once made that mistake. “Once you think that way you can’t come up with anything because nothing will ever be good enough.” After three back-to-back wins he thought Fried Pineapple was “a for sure winner.” He served the battered pineapple chunks with strawberry sauce and whipped cream that he froze with liquid nitrogen. “It freezes instantly and it’s so cold that when you bite into it smoke comes out of your mouth and nose.” It didn’t win. Another dairy favorite however, butter, spread open a path to another success.
Obsessed with the idea of frying butter, Gonzales found batter-dipped butter yielded only a messy and, frankly, disgusting, oily explosion. He ended up wrapping biscuit dough around a chunk of whipped frozen butter and frying it without batter, “the batter didn’t add anything. The dough cooks up like a biscuit and the butter melts inside of it.” It’s like a fried pastry version of Chicken Kiev. Deep Fried Butter won Most Creative in 2009.
Gonzales cheerfully acknowledges his fryer failures. Fried ravioli, “had merit, but came out cardboard-ish, papery, just terrible.” Fried meatballs “came out raw or cold,” and his peppermint experiment melted and gummed up the fryer.
This year’s entry, Fried Chocolate, is a pecan brownie stuffed with a mini white chocolate candy bar and maraschino cherry, dipped in a chocolate cake batter, fried and topped with the ubiquitous powdered sugar, cherry sauce and chocolate-flavored whipped cream. It made it to the finals.
Gonzales’ will be the only booth running twenty-four/seven because he makes the coke, butter, cookie dough, pineapple, chocolate, PBJ and banana, fried pepperoni and sausage pizza and buffalo wing flavored fries fresh every day. He’s there 6 AM to midnight, everyday, leaving only when the prep crew is underway.
The fair, says Gonzales was and remains a big deal to his family. They’ve attended every one since he was born, and he remembers his dad forcing him onto a roller coaster there when he was little to get him to overcome his fear. His whole family helped out when he got started with testing, tasting and selling, he says. “Now that I’m a big part of it, well, it just means so much to us as a family.