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.

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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