One of the most sentimental dishes in the 17 years of the State Fair of Texas’ Big Tex Choice Awards was announced as a two-time winner on Aug. 29, 2021.
Judges picked deep-fried seafood gumbo balls as the best-tasting savory dish and the most creative. It’s rare that one dish wins two awards, but it has happened once before, in 2017 for two-time winner Funnel Cake Bacon Queso Burger.
It’s a sentimental choice because the fried gumbo ball was created by a family that has worked at the fair for 35 years. Matriarch Norma Parish died last month, about a week before her son Greg Parish’s dish was named a Big Tex Choice Awards finalist.
The recipe has been in the family for four generations, and the award helps honor one of the State Fair’s most veteran female concessionaires.
The winner for the best-tasting sweet dish is The Armadillo, an oversized cookie butter ice cream sandwich created by concessionaire James Barrera.
Dallas chef Kent Rathbun called the dessert “finger lickin’ good.” He noted that consumers will have to eat this big ice cream sandwich quickly, since the State Fair often sees scorching Texas temperatures.
The awards ceremony felt more emotional than in years past, in part because the State Fair of Texas was canceled last year because of concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s fair will go on, with some safety updates like COVID-19 vaccinations available on-site.
Concessionaire Clint Probst, a prolific winner of the Big Tex Choice Awards over the past decade for dishes like chicken-fried meatloaf and fried shrimp boil, said this year’s event was especially important for cooks like him who rely on the fair for their yearly income.
“We need a good fair,” he said during the Big Tex Choice Awards. “We’re really feeling honored and grateful.”
His Deep Fried I-35 was among the 10 finalists but not a winner. All 10 dishes will be the most talked about, photographed and tasted new foods at the fair this year. But the three winners among them are the fried-and-true celebrities: They typically bring in the most money.
For perspective, the three winners were chosen among 43 Big Tex Choice Awards entries created by 26 State Fair concessionaires.
“Everyone always says it’s an honor to be nominated,” said Karissa Condoianis, spokeswoman for the State Fair.
“Of course, being named a winner today would be the fried icing on the funnel cake.”
Another sentimental finalist — which did not win at the awards ceremony — is Fernie’s Fried Toffee Coffee Crunch Cake, created by a family that has been serving fried food at the State Fair for more than five decades. Wanda “Fernie” Winter, who was known as the “funnel cake queen,” died in June at age 95. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will operate five concession stands at the 2021 fair.
This year’s judging panel for the Big Tex Choice Awards included three Dallas chefs: Tiffany Derry, who just opened new restaurant Roots Southern Table in Farmers Branch; Uno Immanivong, owner of Red Stix Street Food in Dallas, with another opening soon in Farmers Branch; and Rathbun, who co-owns Lovers Seafood & Market, Shinsei and Imoto. They were joined on the judging panel by radio personalities Donovan Lewis of KTCK-AM (1310) “The Ticket” and Michelle Rodriguez of “New Country 96.3″ KSCS-FM.
Lewis was called the “king of the State Fair” during the awards ceremony, in part because he took his wife to the fair on their first date, in 1993, and has been going back ever since. The two go at least twice a week — often just to stop in for dinner.
“We missed that last year and can’t wait to get back and do that exact same thing this year,” Lewis said.
The judges gushed over many of the 10 finalists, with Derry even writing what sounded like a love letter to the Parishes’ winning fried gumbo ball.
“My God,” she said after taking the first bite. “There is a pocket of shrimp, sausage, chicken — and it’s almost like they made cornbread dressing, tossed it all together, made a ball, deep fried that bad boy, stuffed me a side with crab legs hanging out, [gave me] the smallest, cute bottle of Tabasco. And they deep-fried me a piece of okra.”
“This is good,” she said.
It’s likely to be the single most sought-after new fried food at the State Fair of Texas in 2021.
The State Fair of Texas runs Sept. 24 through Oct. 17 at Fair Park in Dallas. All 10 Tex Choice Awards finalists will be sold at the State Fair.