Don’t Know What This Is, Except Real Good
By JOHN DeMERS
The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo definitely has a favorite “f word.” And that word would be “fried.”
Anything that walks, gallops, crawls, swims or slithers can be and presumably is fried (preferably in a batter that justifies the word “chicken” as its first name) somewhere amid the food booths of Reliant Park. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve reached today after the three-plus hours of nonstop eating required to judge the 2nd annual Gold Buckle Foodie Awards. A couple of entries showed up in the standard Styrofoam with salad – it was all we judges could manage not to hold the lettuce up with a sneer and demand “What is the meaning of this?”
Presumably, all the major food items offered for sale at the Rodeo made their way in front of us this morning. And while not all items were equally artery-clogging, there did arise a certain culinary m.o, a certain set of steps from which a cook departed only at his or her peril. 1. Find something Texans love to eat. 2. Batter it and fry it in fat. 3. Give some serious thought to covering it with processed cheese. In food terms, the Gold Buckle tasting is the equivalent of Texas Independence Day.
“One of our contestants offered a deep-fried Pepcid,” deadpanned emcee Harry Miller, who identified himself as a member of the Rodeo barbecue committee. “It’s not my joke,” he brightened into the microphone, “but I wish it was.”
For those concerned about the health of the judges – an intrepid gaggle of food journalists, bloggers and broadcast personalities – there was one not-so-fattening silver lining in all these clouds. Different tables tasted different items spread over a number of categories, saving any single judge from being forced to taste everything trotted out in Styrofoam with a number and a category scribbled on the box. To handle this matter any other way would have required teams of EMTs.
There is no overall winner of the Golden Buckle Awards – no Best Picture, in appropriately Oscar terms. There is only the equivalent of Best Actress With Red Hair in a Comedy Shorter than 120 Minutes. Something tells me the folks behind the judging want a lot of their vendors to feel good about winning – which certainly is how it works, even though a handful of people picked up first, second or third in two or three different categories. Some winners even scored for outlandishly unexpected selections – the equivalent of “Big Longhorn Steakhouse” winning for its fruit salad. It just goes to show, I suppose, that at the Rodeo, everybody involved fixes different things for a host of different reasons.
“On Fridays,” offered Brad Bailey of Sudie’s in Pasadena and League City, as well as Bailey’s American Grille in Seabrook, “there are so many Catholics that the fish just flies outta here. We’re trying to lobby the Pope to extend Lent a little more.”
Since the judging was over when Bailey spoke to the judges, and since he’d already picked up his awards, he felt free to offer a bribe to make his point. He brought over a groaningly packed container of fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried hush puppies and fried pickles. At least the tartar sauce and ranch dressing weren’t fried, but that didn’t make them exactly carrot sticks either. And he was right: this was one of the best things to eat at an annual Texas celebration devoted to “livestock.” Maybe the Pope should deal with that heresy while he’s at it.
Appropriately, the judges’ day started with the category named Breakfast Food, with the winner turning out to be the sandwich from Stubby’s. This was followed by a wave of tacos and burritos (still breakfast, theoretically), with the winner the Trail Boss Burrito from Texas Skillet. Sudie’s fried shrimp rightly took the seafood category, though the light, delicious, farm-raised catfish wasn’t allowed to compete because it didn’t technically come “from the sea.” And if you’d like a baked potato (instead of fries) with that, you could certainly do worse than the VERY stuffed version dished up by Harlon’s Bar-B-Que, one of only two entries to get perfect 10 for a score.
Burgers are always close to my heart, in more ways than one, and there were several that were fine in a standard meat-mustard-pickle sort of way, basically the South Texas style pioneered in the 1950s by Whataburger. The winner, however, came from Paradise Burger and did the Texas bigger-equals-better thing: it had double meat and double cheese. Surprisingly, while many things came before us on a stick (from sausage to pizza), the winner for stick-borne goodness was a huge strawberry dipped in chocolate from Granny’s Cheesecake. This was the other Perfect 10. Go figure.
Berryhill, the people who taught Houston that fried fish DOES too belong on a taco, took Fried Food honors for that with crispy shrimp and fish, while Saltgrass Steakhouse claimed the first-among-equals honor in barbecue for their chicken and ribs platter. In the category called Favorite Foods, admittedly for good things that didn’t fit anywhere else, the judges actually pushed nachos and pork loin into third and second to honor a cinnamon roll from Stubby’s. That same cinnamon roll (or at least a cinnamon roll from the same people) also won best dessert, over cheesecake on a stick and a version of apple pie. In a world that includes Sudie’s banana pudding with vanilla wafers, I don’t think there’s a cinnamon roll being made that should come out on top.
Finally, there were two categories that aspired to look toward the future rather than the past: Most Creative and Best New Flavor. Neither category really turned out to be, reflecting the tradition-laden food preferences of the carnival midway.
“As long as it fits in a box, we don’t care,” Miller joked when asked to explain Most Creative.
And the winner did. Fit in a box, that is. It was ceviche that kind of split the difference with all-American seafood cocktail. As for Best New Flavor, I’m not sure how new it really was – but it sure was yummy. And it came from the people who gave us that ceviche, that banana pudding and later that bribe of fried catfish, Sudie’s. The winner was a shrimp BLT on a toasted onion roll. I was thinking about that as I said goodbye to the judges for another year, and I gave the dish my highest possible benediction.
“I’d actually pay money for that,” I was heard to exclaim.
Chicken-Fried Meatballs, Fresh from their Stick!