For several decades, many have come to believe carnival food is nothing but exaggerated junk food beckoning diabetes or coronary heart disease. (This is typically still the case—think greasy turkey legs, corn chips, and cotton candy.)
Yet the iconoclast of the modern American carnie food is something that, while embracing both of these health hazards, also presents a unique opportunity for exploration and creativity: the world of good ol' deep-fried food. In more recent times, this once-demonized cooking method has evolved from an eye-rolling embodiment of American excess to a mainstay of the concessioners'—or even connoisseur's—arsenal. This is all thanks to one man: Abel Gonzales Jr., a.k.a. "Fried Jesus."
I'm not claiming that frying food is a nouveau method. But when Gonzales entered the fray in the past decade and turned whatever entered his vats of oil into edible gold, people started taking deep-frying food, well, seriously.
Born into a family of Tex-Mex restaurateurs in Dallas, Texas, Gonzales got his start in the culinary world by working in the family business as a dishwasher and eventually chef. After temporarily leaving the restaurant world for a 9-to-5 tech position, he returned a few years later with his computer analyst co-worker Diron French, and the duo moonlighted as fry cooks together at the annual Texas State Fair to earn some spare vacation money. But the upcoming Big Tex Choice Award contest to create the next best carnival food—which had an Elvis theme that year—paved the way for Gonzales's culinary destiny.
"I had a fucking fryer—that's all I had," Gonzales explained to me from his home in Dallas, reminding me that this was all during the pre-Frypocalypse era of Carnival Food. "There was this peanut butter sandwich thing that Elvis would do with bananas and bacon, and he would pan-fry it. So I just thought maybe I should deep-fry it and make that happen."
For what seemed to be a simple concept to Gonzales, the Deep-Fried PB&J Banana Sandwich shook the very logic of the culinary world—at least when it came to county fair food. "I didn't think it was that big of a deal, but I saw the fun people were having with it," he explained. "They were really intrigued by the whole thing."
What he probably didn't realize at the time is that the average man, and even some chefs, really do not understand the complexity of proper deep-frying. It's not just a matter of taking whatever edible substance you want and chucking it into a scalding vat of hot oil. His fourth-year recipe—"Fire & Ice"—highlights the technical skill behind incorporating the method into unconventional recipes. The dish itself is comprised of deep-fried pineapple rings crowned with instant frozen whipped cream. To be considered in its preparation: whether the pineapple moisture or batter will turn to mush in the 375-degree oil, how the whipped cream can maintain its form, and, of course, whether or not the thing will actually taste good.
Gonzales explains to me that he goes further than his contemporaries in deep-frying by paying close attention to food trends and working out how he can put a twist on them in his own recipes. Sure, a student whipping up deep-fried delights post-culinary school is probably the last on the list of an International Culinary Center professor's lifetime-achievement goals, but the needs for technique and craft are still there.
But there have also been setbacks for Gonzalez.
After winning three Big Tex Choice awards three years in a row, his first loss with "Fire & Ice" would eventually lead him to nationwide, if not global, infamy in his field. In theory, both flavor- and technique-wise, the recipe sounds intriguing. But he encountered a major problem.
"It created this smoke because of the instant frozen whipped cream," he explained to me slightly morosely. "I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world, but we didn't win."
But it was this loss that led to the conception of deep-fried butter in 2009.
Most professionals probably would have taken the burn and move on. With Gonzales, however, it was quite literally out of the pan and into the fryer. "I was like, We're gonna give them fried on top of fried on top of fried," he explained excitedly.
Well, what better way of doing that than deep-frying straight-up butter? The phrase "fried butter" is admittedly a little off-putting to many. But it turns out that the stuff is delicious. And the media went insane for it. The Dallas Morning News even said at the time that Gonzalez should be named "Texan of the Year" for his invention.
Akin to a sopapilla or fried bread in terms of texture and flavor, the deep-fried coating forms a dense, bready casing, housing the big, warm pat of butter—hence the name. Topped with a drizzle of honey and a dusting of powdered sugar, the pastry explodes when you bite into it, with a sweet, oozing flavor that makes knees quiver and teeth hurt. Not that this has stopped anyone from ordering a second one.
Following the creation of fried butter, Gonzales has kept chugging along with the fair, submitting recipes each year when the season rolls around—and managing to add on two more trophies to his roster. Additionally, for the past two years, the deep-frying master has expanded beyond the carnival with his Seinfeld-referencing food-catering business Vandalay Ind.—"Someone actually beat us to the name [Vandalay Industries], so it's 'Vandalay Ind.,'" he explains—where he now flexes his non-deep-fryer cooking muscles during the carnival off-season, churning out hundreds of orders of kung pao chicken or enchiladas. And right as Fried Jesus expanded beyond the carnival world, so did fried food.
"Everybody saw what was going on at these fairs and how popular they were with the general public," Gonzales said. "So they started creating their own little unique foods that have gotten in to the mainstream." And he's right.
We've culturally embraced kale, quinoa, and other eroticized health foods, but at the same time, we're finally accepting our equally devout passion for fat-based treats. The explosive trend of artisanal doughnut shops popping up around the country is one of the clearest examples of fried subversion, and pastry chefs are just doing exactly what the guys at the carnivals have been doing for years: taking something, deep-frying it, and trying to make it taste more interesting. Munching on a thigh of fried chicken, a friend recently mentioned to me that he had only tried a deep-fried Oreo once … and it wasn't at a carnival, but at an upscale restaurant, artisanal chocolate cookie and all.
Gonzales, dodging the question of what this year's recipe will be, jests that the popularity of his fried butter may never be replicated. (He did concede: "What I'm gonna come up this year is gonna be like, What?!")
Still, with people continuously lining up year after year for his creations—even last year, when he didn't even get nominated for an award—he admits that he's just happy to be part of his grassroots culinary carnie culture, and it's sweet.