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Deep-Fry Chefs Keep It Hot And Poppin' In Texas

Every year, the State Fair of Texas awards the most original food that is battered and plunged into a vat of boiling oil.

And it gets weirder every year. The obvious choices came and went in previous competitions — concoctions such as fried ice cream, fried cookie dough and chicken-fried bacon. Now, every year, the same cooks have to top themselves, which is not easy.

Last year, Butch Benavides — a Mexican food restaurateur turned fry-master — won a trophy for his fried bacon cinnamon roll on a stick.

"And we had fried cactus last year, which most people never even tasted a cactus but we came up with fried cactus, after we took all the thorns off, of course," he says.

Standing in his kitchen, Benavides reaches into a stainless steel bowl and scoops out a ball of some sort of red and green flecked edible matter.

"Today we're gonna do the Texas fried fireball," he explains. "That's pimento cheese, bacon, pickles, got some cayenne pepper in it to give it a little bite at the end."

He rolls the orbs in egg wash and spicy bread crumbs, and then drops them in the hot grease; they bob on the surface.

"They be fryin' away," he says.

Drive from Butch's home kitchen south of Dallas to a commercial kitchen near downtown that is home to the deep-fried Nutella. The hazelnut-chocolate spread is mixed with cream cheese, and then smeared inside of phyllo dough, which is sealed like a burrito. Its creator, Abel Gonzalez, has gotten so successful at this, he basically sells his fried creations for the three weeks of the State Fair, and then takes off the next 11 months to think about his next offering.

Gonzalez is also a perennial deep-fried champion.

"The past winners have been fried butter, fried Coke, fried cookie dough, fried peanut butter sandwich. Last year, we won for fried jambalaya," he says.

At this point in the story, it's probably a good time for a reality check.

"As a dietician, I can't think of any worse, or less healthy food choices than the finalists for the Big Texas fried food awards," says Stephanie Dean, of the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, who estimates the fried finalists are 500 to 1,000 calories each.

"So if you're a 200-pound adult and you plan on going to the State Fair to have the deep-fried Nutella, you would need to walk for two to five hours to burn off the calories from that deep-fried Nutella," Dean says.

Back to the frying.

The last fry chef we'll visit should get points for originality. He is Justin Martinez, who runs the Lone Star Roadhouse inside the fairgrounds.

"OK, what we have here is a fried Thanksgiving dinner. What I'm getting into now is the stuffing and diced turkey into a ball, mush that together there. Then we'll be dipping it into Southern-style cream corn. We're gonna roll it into a seasoned cornmeal, this gives us the texture we're lookin' for when we fry it,"

The verdicts:

The fried Texas fireball? You have to like a fried cheeseball.

Deep fried Nutella? Mmmmmmmmmm. Just be sure and let the Nutella cool or it burns like napalm.

And the fried Thanksgiving dinner? The stuffing is a bit mushy, but it has a pleasing, familiar flavor.

And as long as we were in Texas, where they'll fry nearly anything, we conducted an experiment: A southern-fried microphone.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.