Hot beef sundaes are nothing new; in fact, we wrote about them back in March 2009, when the popular meat-and-potatoes parfait was taking to the streets of Nebraska through the magic of vending machines. Even then, the sundaes were just a rip-off of the popular food from the Iowa State Fair.
Yet here we were, assembled at the Kid's Country Stage in the midway of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, staring at a Texas version of the hot beef sundae: The barbecue sauce-topped pulled pork sundae, a creation of Damian's owner Frankie B. Mandola. It was disappointing, to say the least, that Texas isn't getting more creative with its own fair and rodeo foods and is co-opting stuff from the Midwest.
Come on, y'all. We can do better than that.
The entries at this year's Gold Buckle Foodie Awards were, for the most part, similarly uninspired (yet still tasty; don't get me wrong). John DeMers, author and local radio personality, lamented the selection towards the end of our hours-long judging and eating spree. When I asked him his favorite of the day, there was a moment of shoulder-sagging blankness before he finally answered, "The chicken-fried bacon was stupid."
"But the cheeseburger was really good," he continued.
Over dinner at Feast that evening, my friend Peggy and I concocted our own dream "rodeo menu" that consisted of fried green tomatoes on a stick and deep-fried mashed potatoes with a creamy center of sour cream, cheese and green onions -- among other things. (I can't give all our secrets away.) The feeling was that rodeo food could get far more inventive -- say, along the lines of Texas State Fair food -- than just the same old cheesecake on a stick.
Some of that ingenuity was present in small doses, however ill-conceived, in items like chocolate-covered jalapenos, chocolate-covered pickles and deep-fried Moon Pies. This is a much closer approximation of what I'd really love to see at the rodeo each year: silly fair food that still takes its ingredients and Southern provenance seriously.
Not everyone was as big a fan of the chocolate-covered pickles, however.
"It's not bad," conceded Rick Harsch, the affable chairman of the Commercial Exhibitors Committee. "Better than the chicken-fried bacon, that's for sure."
"But I wouldn't be busting one out and walking around the movie theater with it. It doesn't really suit my image," he laughed, dressed head-to-toe in his rodeo finest.
In the end, it was a combination of simplicity and creativity that won the biggest prices for the competing food vendors, giving me hope for the years to come: Harlon's barbecue-stuffed baked potato, always a crowd favorite, took first place in the Best Baked Potato category, while the chocolate-covered strawberries and bananas on a stick from Granny's Cheesecake took first place in the Food On A Stick category. The team from Sills created a banana split funnel cake that took first place in the Best Dessert Category, while that deep-fried Moon Pie from Sweet Cheeks placed first in the Best Fried Food Category.
A beaming Brenda Premont returned from the stage clutching a duo of ribbons for her Granny's Cheesecake team -- they also won for Favorite Food -- and I had to ask her the secret to those stunningly fresh, amaranth red strawberries in her dessert. Where had they come from?
She giggled shyly, eyes darting around, before finally asking me: "Can you keep a secret?"
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I told her that I could.
More photos of the chocolate-covered, battered, dipped and fried foods are in our slideshow.