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100,000 gumbo balls: How one State Fair food family is preparing for their biggest year yet

The family matriarch died seven weeks before the State Fair, and her son is determined to honor her legacy as one of the first Black concessionaires.

It’s 3 a.m., and about 10 people are working in a tiny kitchen in East Oak Cliff, fans whirring and music playing. They’re racing to roll 100,000 gumbo balls by Friday.

The Parish family’s fried gumbo balls recipe won two of the three Big Tex Choice Awards this year, meaning it could be the single most sought-after new food item at the State Fair of Texas this year. It’s also the most expensive Big Tex Choice Awards dish, priced at 25 coupons, or $25.

Whitney Cheatham and Greg Parish's families have worked at the State Fair of Texas since 1985. Although they've been named finalists at several food competition awards over the years, 2021 is the first year their dish won.
Whitney Cheatham and Greg Parish's families have worked at the State Fair of Texas since 1985. Although they've been named finalists at several food competition awards over the years, 2021 is the first year their dish won.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

The 2021 event is poised to be the Parish family’s most lucrative in its 36 years at the fair.

Greg Parish, owner of concessions company Gourmet Royale, is preparing by employing a team of 40 people around the clock so they’ll have enough gumbo balls to fry on site during the 24-day fair. “It’s a 24-hour operation,” says Whitney Cheatham, Greg Parish’s niece and a third-generation concessionaire.

The work is tedious and repetitive, and Parish knows what’s at stake.

“Because if you get behind ...” Parish starts to say, but he stops himself: They must not get behind.

Chef Greg Parish holds a photo of his mother Norma Parish after winning 'most creative' and 'best taste - savory' for his fried gumbo balls at the Big Tex Choice Awards.
Chef Greg Parish holds a photo of his mother Norma Parish after winning 'most creative' and 'best taste - savory' for his fried gumbo balls at the Big Tex Choice Awards.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

His parents Norma and Robert Parish were some of the earliest Black concessionaires at the fair, given a booth 99 years after the first fair took place in Dallas. Their fried gumbo balls stem from a recipe passed down from Norma Parish’s mother, Katie Bell Jackson. It was then given fried fair flair by Greg Parish, a French-trained chef.

Just after the Parish family submitted their fried gumbo ball recipe to the State Fair of Texas, Norma Parish died on Aug. 3, 2021. Greg Parish accepted the family’s honor, first as a finalist and then as a two-time winner, without the family matriarch. Greg Parish thinks she’d be proud to see them sell the family-recipe gumbo, balled up and fried for fairgoers.

The making of a two-time winner

It’s rare for a State Fair finalist to win two of the three awards. The Parishes’ win for “most creative” was announced first.

“When we won most creative, I thought for sure we wouldn’t win the other one,” Greg Parish says — he’s talking about the “best taste” award, which is given to one sweet dish and one savory dish.

Big Texas Choice Awards food judge Michelle Rodriguez, a radio host at New Country 96.3, takes a bite of Greg Parish's fried gumbo balls. She and other judges raved about them.
Big Texas Choice Awards food judge Michelle Rodriguez, a radio host at New Country 96.3, takes a bite of Greg Parish's fried gumbo balls. She and other judges raved about them.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

But Greg Parish shouldn’t have been surprised at the double win. Judges gushed over the fried gumbo balls more than any of the other nine Big Tex Choice Awards finalists.

“My God,” judge and Dallas chef Tiffany Derry said after her first bite, noting the sweet flavor from the cornbread dressing and the balance of spice.

Each gumbo ball is made of shrimp, chicken, crab, Andouille sausage and rice, melded with a dark, flavorful roux. It’s rolled in crushed saltine crackers and breadcrumbs, then deep fried and served with a side of gumbo and a piece of fried okra.

Dallas restaurateur Kent Rathbun loved it. “I cannot wait to come to the fair and buy this,” he said during the judging.

Once the fried gumbo ball was named the best-tasting savory dish, Greg Parish realized 2021 was going to be a big year.

The fried gumbo balls will be sold in two locations at the fair: inside, at the Tower Building; and outside, across from the livestock birthing barn. The State Fair of Texas runs Sept. 24 through Oct. 17, 2021.
The fried gumbo balls will be sold in two locations at the fair: inside, at the Tower Building; and outside, across from the livestock birthing barn. The State Fair of Texas runs Sept. 24 through Oct. 17, 2021.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

It all started with popcorn

Norma and Robert Parish started selling food at the fair in 1985, a fateful job Greg Parish calls “an act of God.”

It all started with popcorn, nachos and beer. Back then, there was no Big Tex Choice Awards, no flamboyantly fried creations like deep-fried beer or double-baptized Oreos. But the Parishes always seemed to be innovating. Greg Parish says he was “sous chef for my mother” since he was a child, and it’s the reason he went to culinary school.

In 1987, when Greg Parish was a teenager, the family started selling the critter fritter, a fried jalapeño stuffed with ground beef.

By 1996, the family was inspired to make chicken and waffles. It was actually NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson’s idea: He’s Greg Parish’s cousin.

We called the fried red velvet cupcake 'an absolute must' in 2012.
We called the fried red velvet cupcake 'an absolute must' in 2012.(Ann Pinson - Staff)

The Parishes entered the Big Tex Choice Awards for the first time in 2012. They submitted a fried red velvet cupcake and a deep-fried chicken and waffle on a stick. Neither won, but both are still on their State Fair menus today.

By 2013, they were all in. They tried out two family recipes: deep-fried spaghetti and meatballs, inspired by Greg Parish’s dad; and fried shrimp and grits, made by his mom.

In 2017, they “struck gold” with pinot noir popcorn, which named them a Big Tex Choice Awards finalist for the first time. Yes, popcorn: That was one of the family’s first concession items some 35 years ago.

“It all comes back around,” Cheatham says.

In 2019, they got “a taste of the demand” when their deep-fried Alfredo ball scored a finalist spot. That was their highest sales year to date.

Greg Parish and his family have hired 40 people to work 24 hours a day at their kitchen in East Oak Cliff, getting ready for the State Fair of Texas.
Greg Parish and his family have hired 40 people to work 24 hours a day at their kitchen in East Oak Cliff, getting ready for the State Fair of Texas.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

But the fried alfredo ball was not a winner. They didn’t hire a team of people to work 24 hours a day. And they didn’t feel as much pressure to preserve their mom’s legacy. She was harsh critic who was serious about fair food — and “she worked on the gumbo ball, all the way up to her transition,” Greg Parish says.

So it’s back to the kitchen, to get ready for the big day.

“There are a lot of emotions right now,” Greg Parish says, standing outside of his tiny commercial kitchen.

“This is a dream come true.”

The deep-fried gumbo balls will be sold at both of the Parish family’s Gourmet Royale concessions stands at the State Fair of Texas: inside, at the Tower Building food court; and outside, across from the livestock birthing barn. Each dish costs 25 coupons, or $25. (Coupons now cost $1 each.)

For more food news, follow Sarah Blaskovich on Twitter at @sblaskovich.

Check out more State Fair of Texas stories:

Sarah Blaskovich, food writer. Sarah writes about restaurants, bars and culture in Dallas. Follow @sblaskovich and ask her what to do, where to eat or where to drink in your area.

sblaskovich@dallasnews.com /sarah.blaskovich @sblaskovich @sarahblaskovich
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