Ken Hoffman and crew review Houston Rodeo carnival's extraordinary food

Dominic Palmieri, mastermind of the rodeo's carnival food. Photo by Brandon Strange

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

Eight years ago, after stuffing myself — by myself — on my traditional lap around carnival food shacks at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, I invited a gang of high school freshman to gorge along. I considered this my corndog consumption intern program. Oh, they could eat and eat. And come back for thirds.

So this year, I rounded 'em up again — six seniors at Texas A&M — and we hit the carnival. They've shown no let up in appetite. Let's get this show on the road.

Dominic Palmieri, famed "Midway Gourmet" at the rodeo, met us in his swanky Ray Cammack Shows administration office smack in the middle of the carnival. "Fellas, let's eat!" Palmieri is the boss man over all the Carnival sweets, meats and treats — 39 booths in all. He's the mad scientist who thought, "Sure turkey legs are fantastic, everybody loves them, they're nature's original food on a stick … but what if we wrapped bacon around turkey legs?"

If only Palmieri used his powers for good instead of evil.

Rodeo taste testing
He told the taste testers, "Tonight, I'm going to have you try some traditional carnival favorites and some new things we've created for this year's rodeo. Our job at RCS is to push the envelope with carnival food, to be innovators. We're not looking for one hit wonders, we're striving for treats that will endure several years. When you hear about other fairs introducing something popular, in many cases we've had that item for four or five years."

The Aggies probably were thinking, enough with the lecture, let's get in some lab work … we were told not to eat all day for this.

Over the next three hours, the fellas ate Deep Fried Oreos, rode a couple of rides, ate some Texas Brisket Nachos, played a few games, ate some Hot Cheetos Corn, ate some warm Chocolate Chip Cookies, loosened our belts a notch, dined on Steak Dinner on a Stick, and learned how -325-degree liquid nitrogen takes churros to a whole new level from Professor Palmieri.

This is Palmieri's 26th years running the Midway's restaurant loop at the carnival and he hasn't lost a step of enthusiasm for his craft. He's a fixture on the carnival pavement, that's him in the red chef's jacket adorned with the names of midway food shacks … and a cowboy hat. Palmieri wears his signature jacket at nine major carnivals and fairs throughout the country each year. The cowboy hat is just for us in Houston.

Deep-fried delights
Our first stop was for Deep Fried Oreos. Palmieri brought us plenty, with the warning that he didn't want to see any leftovers. "If you're going to enjoy it, you've got to destroy it." History lesson: long ago, carnival sweets were basically limited to cotton candy and candy apples. About 20 years ago, funnel cakes showed up, and Rodeo fans saw that they were good. In fact, delicious.

Then tough times hit, the low-carb craze. "But after a few years of depriving themselves, people wanted to roll around in a bath tub filled with sugar and carbs again," Palmieri said. "That's when we introduced Deep-Fried Twinkies at the Los Angeles County Fair. We sold 10,000 Twinkies that year. That's a lot of Twinkies."

The next year, Deep-Fried Oreos hit big. Now they're a staple at fairs everywhere. Soon there were Deep-Fried _______ (fill in the blank) and they're all still very popular. The last thing we enjoyed-destroyed on our way out was Deep Fried Cheesecake.

Palmieri said deep-frying boosts the character and flavor of an Oreo, which already does quite nicely for itself straight off the supermarket shelf. Dipped in batter, fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar, the Oreo becomes gooey, the chocolate cookie and cream filling blending into molten joy. The batter turns golden brown and glistening. You can ask for your Deep Fried Oreo dipped in a variety of sweet sauces, but Palmieri said he likes his straight with just powdered sugar. "I'm a purist," he said.

Cheetos, meet pizza
Last year, Palmieri introduced a cup of corn topped with Flamin' Hot Cheetos. That happened to be my favorite new item. This year, he's added mayonnaise and shredded cheese to the Cheetos Corn. The real secret, he whispered, is the broth in which the corn is cooked. The Corn Shack also sells fresh roasted corn on the cob.

Palmieri brought out a giant pepperoni pizza with Cheetos tossed on top. It was gone is in 60 seconds flat, maybe faster. "We were looking for a something different in a pizza topping. We figured, there's no traditional topping that's crunchy. So we tried putting Cheetos on top and the reaction has been huge. People love it. We have Cheetos on a few things now. We will sell a truckload of Cheetos at this Rodeo."

On to Puffy Tacos, a Half-Pound Burger, Steak Dinner on a Stick, Churros frozen in liquid Nitrogen (smoke pours from your mouth when you bite one), Deep Fried Butter Balls with Vermont Maple Syrup (tastes like and inside-out waffle), Hot Cheetos Caramel Apples, and Hot Dogs Wrapped in Bacon and Spiral French Fries.

No wonder none of us could sink a free throw at the basketball game.

Continue reading on CultureMap to learn about the winners of the Gold Buckle Foodie Awards and see more photos of the food.

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