The (deep fried) Texas State Fair
Three hours north of Austin, up the deathly straight tarmac of Highway 35, an even more lethal congestion of charming southerners slightly losing their grace awaited me, in the tight side streets of East Dallas. It was November 2012, and I was on my way to the Texas State Fair, the biggest state fair in the country.
I had heard stories of the Fair in the first week of my relocation from Australia to Austin, Texas, and to my rather pedestrian, painfully middle class Australian mind, the Fair sounded the perfect smorgasbord of all-American-Southern-wild-otherness that I was so dying to see. A giant cowboy robot which greets you at the door, infomercial products flogged in the flesh from the very darkest corner of 3am television, and most importantly: the deep fried dish competitions. I promised myself a day of horrendous indulgence.
Eleven months later, and I had subconsciously integrated into the insular and beautiful world of Austin’s alternative scene, which seems to make up 96% of the city (bar the sororities and frat houses, of course). I was living in a clothing optional student co-operative: a tree house home to one hundred students all living under the foundational principles of strength among solidarity. I had made a strangely intimate relationship with my writing mentor, joined a radical Free Skool, and coordinated a book group that I could have only dreamed of in Hobart. I was dating an anarchist performance artist who made puppets. At home, I would chef for a hundred people, drunk, dancing, and half-naked, while feminists did body shots off each other’s stomachs on the kitchen floor. My house organised its own music festival. Dan Deacon and Grimes played in our goddamn lounge room. I was ten kilos heavier and happier than ever. These things no longer seemed surreal, or stuck out as strange quirks in my existence. I was supremely happy, floating in a bubble of lefty paradise. I didn’t even get an STI.
Consequently, it was easy to forget about that distant memory of the Texas State Fair come November. And when I eventually got through the traffic and arrived at the infamous site, it didn’t immediately seem all that weird, or even that American. How could this be? There were Texan and USA flags hanging from every right angle and plastered on every belly. I questioned whether this was because I was becoming a tad American myself. It was true that I had begun hiding my new upwards twang in Skype conversations, and knew more about what was happening in Oklahoman civil law than I did about anything in Tasmania. By the end of the day, with my wallet one hundred dollars lighter and each skin pore oozing fry oil, I remember feeling some kind of disappointment. I had come armed with my best Hunter S. attitude, but had left sombre and befuddled; even more so at the end of the day, with a Lone Star beer in one hand, and my laptop light of content. As usual, my intuition was right: I was stuck somewhere bad between the objective and subjective experience of becoming unconsciously socialised in a foreign land. I had walked around without honouring the fact that I was even able to drink frozen margaritas, and eat deep fried peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwiches at midday somewhere in Texas, whilst surrounded by gun-clad, concentrated obesity levels that made the worst of Australia seem like a starving nation.
In hindsight, I now see a flagrantly obvious metaphor and warning that was waving me in the face (literally, and somewhat decrepitly) upon arrival at the Fair: Old Tex, the 52-foot smiling cowboy robot, had gone up in flames on his sixtieth birthday. Metaphors are always dependent on individual interpretation, and I’m sure the crowd watching that robotic cowboy burn summoned up a thousand different ones. But I’m reading this one as an apocalyptic warning against losing your objective eye when travelling. No matter how far deep you immerse yourself in your new land, never forget how lucky you are to be there, and how diverse, amazing and fucked up the world is, even in its subtleties.
This story was supposed to be about the deep fried dish competition, and it’s getting a little moralistic so I’ll apologise and stop about now. Here’s a compensatory and sedative list of the Texas State Fair deep fried dishes that I saw, (and I only absorbed a good eighth of that place):
Deep Fried Pepperoni Pizza, Deep Fried Pumpkin Pie, Deep Fried Cookie Dough, Deep Fried S’mores, Deep Fried Oreos, Deep Fried Coke, Deep Fried Lattes, Deep Fried Beer, Deep Fried Bubblegum, and Deep Fried Hostess Ding-Dongs (I just put that one in for the name).
The Texas State Fair takes place from the last day of September for a whopping 24 days, has the largest Ferris wheel in the US, and is visited by millions of Americans nationwide. If you’re in the South during that time, you should probably check it out. Just think of all those deep-fried Budweisers.
Words and pictures by Neika Lehman