Bites and bliss: Exploring the Rodeo carnival's best eats

Bites and bliss: Exploring the Rodeo carnival's best eats
Dominic Palmieri is the Midway Gourmet. Photo by Brandon Strange.

Each year, I have one day circled on my calendar. That’s when Dominic Palmieri, the “Midway Gourmet,” takes me and my merry band of taste testers on a lap around Restaurant Row on the Carnival grounds at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Palmieri was in rare form last week, treating us to the stories behind more than a dozen new items guaranteed to make your eyes roll and tummy squeal with delight. Next year I’m bringing a cot for a mid-tour nap.

This year my roster of taste-testers consisted of Andrew Hoffman (15th year on the job — nepotism has its rewards), Matthew Clemens (eight years), Andrew and Nikki Hardee (four and two years). Nikki is still on probation, and I’ve got to be honest, it doesn’t look good for her – excessive use of napkins.

But before the pig-out begins, here’s a fast Q&A with the man responsible for ensuring that each turkey leg is cooked to perfection and each deep-fried Twinkie makes you give self-control the night off.

CultureMap: How many years have you and Ray Cammack Shows been with the Carnival at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo?
Dominic Palmieri: Ray Cammack Shows has run the Carnival for 31 years, the same period I’ve been here with my food booths.

CM: What’s the latest trend for food at the Carnival?
DP: For the past few years, spicy was the rage. Now it’s spicy and sour. We’re seeing a lot of pickles. We’re seeing a lot of things with sour candy. Even some of our seasonings are sour, like tajin, which is very much a chili-lime seasoning. It was all about bacon five years ago. Then spicy had a really good run. Now we’re seeing a crossover into sour. For example, we have a Pickle Split that is just like a banana split except we slice a pickle in half lengthwise instead of a banana. We also have a Hot Cheetos Pickle Pizza.

CM: Do you have to take generational tastes into account when you develop a new product? For example, a younger person might be willing to try pickles on a pizza while veteran pizza fans might be aghast at the thought. Put me down for aghast.

DP: Yes, and the reason young people are willing to try pickles on pizza, and like it, is because of FOMO, the fear of missing out. They're seeing our new food selections on their Instagram and their social media. They see 3,000 people talking about it on social media. They know what we have and where to find it. Young people don’t have to come to the Rodeo and go searching for the Pickle Split. Social media has given us a greater upper hand to bring these wild and wacky food items to the masses.

CM: The popularity of the Food Network and the Cooking Channel has created a boom in food awareness. Has that put pressure on you to come up with more creative products?
DP: Absolutely and I’ll give you an example. Carnival Eats has been one of the top shows on the Cooking Channel for 13 years now, a full generation of Rodeo goers. It’s shown all of the amazing foods that you can get when you come to the Rodeo. What Food Network has done is expose people to new types of foods that they've never seen before. It piques their interest and they say 'wow, I've got to go to the Rodeo and try that.'

CM: When do you start preparing for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo?

DP: We start thinking about the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in July each year. The media is part of the preparation process. I start getting phone calls from reporters in Houston around October asking me what’s the new deep-fried treat, what’s the next trend? Everybody wants the big scoop.

CM: Every time I pass a restaurant I see a big “Help Wanted” sign in the window. Are you getting enough workers to staff the Carnival this year?
DP: We did have some difficulty last year. But the economic reality has changed. Many people are now living paycheck to paycheck. So we have had a tremendous number of people coming to us looking for work. They need hours. They want extra money. They’re willing to work. We actually have more employees than we've ever had at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo this year.

CM: You’ve maintained your requirements for employment?
DP: Yes, we do drug testing and background checks. We have a policy with respect to uniforms, piercings, tattoos that are visible, and more. We stick to those guidelines because that is our company’s culture and we don’t stray from that.

CM: When it comes to food prices, what goes up doesn’t necessarily come down. I almost fainted when you told me that you’ve lowered the price of turkey legs this year.
DP: Last year, $21. This year, $20! We just happened to get very lucky when we put in our order for turkey legs this year.

We order seven tractor trailers full of turkey legs, by the way. We saw a decrease in price and we’re passing that along to the customer. We feel it’s in the best interest of the customer and to our brand. If there’s a savings we can pass along, we will do it. We still expect to maintain a certain level of profitability. If we didn’t, we wouldn't be able to come back year after year. Our priorities will always be safety, quality and customer service, in that order.

CM: Deep-fried, marshmallow-covered frogs legs may come and go, but corn dogs are forever. What’s the Mount Rushmore of food items at the Rodeo?
DP: Corn dogs, turkey legs, sausage on a stick, funnel cakes, and deep-fried Oreos. (That’s five things, but are you here to eat or do math homework?)

CM: Not to get all gushy, but your Nashville Hot Chicken and Tater Tots is the single best thing I’ve ever eaten outdoors. Man, those tots! Did you notice everybody’s hands digging into those tots? Talk to me.
DP: We had Nashville Hot Chicken last year but this year we’re pairing it with garlic tater tots. We created a garlicy butter, slightly spicy sauce that we toss the tater tots in. It gives the tater tots a completely different dimension and texture. And then we toss some pickles on top to cut the heat.

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