10 QUESTIONS

Ken Hoffman eats up the history of the corn dog, the ultimate carnival food

Who doesn't love a good corn dog? Photo by Kevin Brown/State Fair of Texas

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

The first inventor I ever met was during a trip to Taiwan. The island state invited U.S. columnists to see how Taiwan was re-inventing itself as a manufacturer of quality products. Its new slogan was a twist on the time-worn "Made in China." Now it was "Well Made in China."

A tourism host asked me, "Would you like to interview executives in our computer and electronics industry?" Uh … would it be possible to meet the person who invented the Whoopee Cushion? There's only one guaranteed laugh in the world, and that's when somebody sits on a Whoopee Cushion. Whoopee Cushions were always "Made in China," at least the ones I ordered from the back of comic books.

I was driven to a factory, 11 Allen 61, Lane 2, Section 8 on the outskirts of city center. This is where they made dribble glasses, itching powder, fake dog poop, fly in the ice cube and joy buzzers. That's where I met Fu-Yuan Shih, the inventor the Whoopee Cushion. If there's ever a Comedy Hall of Fame, he's a first-ballot inductee.

Fu-Yuan explained that the Whoopee Cushion was invented by accident when he toyed around with an inflatable ball with a flap. The ball sprung a leak, air escaped through the flap, and it sounded like the post-party at a baked bean convention. Fun fact: the first person to unknowingly sit on a Whoopee Cushion was Fu-Yuan's business partner, Chen-Mu Chen. Huge laugh.

A corn dog legacy
Meeting Fu-Yuan was a thrill, but I think I topped that this week at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. I had lunch with the great-granddaughter of Neil Fletcher Sr., the culinary genius who invented the corn dog. Jace Fletcher just started her own corn dog business, and she's debuting her Fletch shack at the rodeo.

Between bites of (what else?) a corn dog, I squeezed in 10 Questions for Fletcher. I had the "The Beef," with organic uncured beef. Ace photographer Brandon Strange vaporized "The Classic," with smoked pork and beef. Fletcher vanquished "The Spice," with sausage infused with jalapeño and cheddar.

Organic? Uncured? Infused? Times have changed in the corn dog business. But "not too much, they're still delicious corn dogs," Fletcher assured me.

Ken Hoffman: Let's shimmy up your family tree. How are you related to the creator of the original corn dog?

Jace Fletcher: I am the fourth generation. "Papa" Neil Fletcher, Sr., the inventor, was my great-grandfather. His son Neil (Skip) Fletcher, Jr. was my grandfather. His son Craig Fletcher was my father. I am an only child.

KH: Tell me about how your great-grandfather thought to shove a stick through a hot dog, dip it in cornmeal batter and deep-fry it.

JF: The story goes something like this. Papa Neil and his brother Carl Fletcher made their way to Texas in the '20s with their vaudeville show called the Madcap Players. The tent show was directed by Papa Neil and performed by his wife, Grandma Minnie, among a few other local actors.

It was when they set up at the State Fair of Texas to perform 'The Drunkard' that Papa Neil and Carl were challenged by a friend to come up with fast finger food to sell to fair-goers. They headed straight home to the kitchen to do some brainstorming.

They used supplies that were readily available, like wieners and cornbread batter. They introduced it at the State Fair of Texas in 1942.

Papa Neil and Carl made only $8,000 that year. They couldn't give their corn dogs away. Eventually they perfected the recipe and now it's a fan favorite.

KH: You can get a corn dog at a hundred different places at the rodeo and carnival. Why should someone buy yours?

JF: Our corn dogs are a fresh, hand-dipped product. Competitors may be selling a frozen product. My mom and I have our finger on the pulse of the operations, especially the food quality. Many of our head fry cooks have been cooking corn dogs to deep-fried perfection for longer than I've been alive. (She's 32.)

KH: The carnival grounds are like a corn field maze. I got lost between a turkey leg booth and a cotton candy pop-up. How do visitors find your stand?

JF: The name of our booth is Fletch. We are booth number J303 just outside the main door of NRG Center in the carnival area. We're facing the stage and the giant ice cream cone, next door to a stand called Fried What?

KH: How is your corn dog today different from the original created by your great-grandfather?

JF: All cornmeal batter recipes are fairly basic and similar in nature. Our Fletch recipe uses unbleached and unenriched flour and minimizes preservatives. We sell so many corn dogs that we don't require a long shelf life. My great-grandfather sold all-beef franks. Fletch goes further than that, offering organic, all-beef, grass-fed franks.

KH: You seem obsessed with quality. Tell me about the hot dogs you use.

JF: In addition to a classic, smoked pork and beef-blended frank, we offer a 100-percent organic, grass-fed, uncured, nitrate and nitrite-free beef frank. There are no preservatives, no hormones, just good ol' beef.

KH: Are people who eat a corn dog concerned with quality options?

JF: Yes! Have you seen the price of Kraft-Heinz stock this week? Everyone is obsessed with quality, not just me. It's becoming mainstream. Just because our food is deep-fried does not mean it is unhealthy and should be off limits. Without getting too scientific, we aim to keep ingredients clean, simple and delicious.

Continue reading on CultureMap to learn about the incredible assortment of sauces.

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Let him cook! Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets are in the midst of a rebuild. Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr are studs. KPJ just signed a four-year extension with the team. Other guys like Jabari Smith Jr, Kenyon Martin Jr, Alperen Sengun, Josh Christopher, Tari Eason, and Jae'Sean Tate are really good pieces to surround Green and KPJ with. The only issue with this group: they're REALLY young! Tate is the elder statesman at 27 of the young nucleus. Most are barely old enough to buy a drink. Some still aren't old enough! They're a bunch of green bananas waiting to turn yellow to slightly brown and be ripe enough for consumption.

We need to give it time. Just like bananas, they take time to ripen. Coach Stephen Silas is known for developing young players. His most prized student is the star player for that team in South Oklahoma up 45. Number 77 for that team credited Silas with helping him realize his All-Pro potential while Silas was a part of the coaching staff there. To a man, all his former players credit him with being a positive influence on their careers. So why are fans in a rush to get rid of him?

When you look at the Rockets' record over the last few years, it's gross. Sure, they've been a lottery team the last couple of seasons, but that was by design. As part of the Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook trades, they gave away pick swap rights. Had they not been that bad, they wouldn't have been able to draft Green or Smith Jr. Those two guys are building blocks for the future, along with KPJ. Giving those picks away would've put this team further down the totem pole of developing themselves into a contender. Losing pays off when you can hit on high lottery picks.

If you give a chef dirt, bread, ham, molded cheese, and spoiled mayo, can you expect anything else but a nasty ham sandwich? How about if the chef was given a steak that is almost rotten, potatoes with root growth, and spoiled butter? Could you expect a better meal than the sandwich? Yes! However, that meal may still cause a stomachache. Now, give said chef a full complement of gourmet groceries and guess what you'll get?

This is why I say let Silas cook. He's the perfect coach for this group of kids. He can teach them all the fundamentals of the game at this level and help them grow into their full potential. If there's a change to be made on the sidelines, move Silas into a front office role, but DO NOT get rid of him! Guys like him are too valuable. Why do you think Mark Cuban hated losing him, but knew he couldn't retain him because he had a head coach already? Cuban knew what he had in Silas and what Silas did for Luka Doncic. He can do something similar for the Rockets if given the time to work his magic.

Should Tilman Fertita find the need to move on, I'd look for a more experienced coach who can guide them from bottom of the playoff ladder into top four in the West and real contenders. For now, Silas is the head chef. Continue giving him the groceries he needs, and he'll continue giving these kids the lessons they need to develop. Changing the coach now could stunt their growth. Let him cook!

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