Deep-fried baller

Judges drop a surprise at 2021 State Fair of Texas Big Tex food awards

Judges drop a surprise at 2021 State Fair of Texas Big Tex food awards

fried food big tex
One of the only two winners in 2021. State Fair of Texas

The 17th annual Big Tex Choice Awards, the fried food ritual that's a part of the annual State Fair of Texas, had a bit of a shocking outcome in 2021. Only two competitors won awards.

This is the contest in which Texas State Fair vendors submit new creations to be judged. The state fair people winnow the list down to 10 finalists, who can win in three categories: savory, sweet, and most creative.

That means there is room for three vendors to win.

But at the judging event on August 29, the judges gave two of those awards to one competitor. So this year, rather than three winners, there are only two.

Get ready to be shocked:

Best Taste – Savory and Best Taste – Creative: Deep Fried Seafood Gumbo Balls, Gourmet Royale
The gumbo balls contain shrimp, chicken, crab, and andouille sausage that are mixed into a roux, rolled into balls, coated in saltine cracker and breadcrumb batter, then fried. They're topped with chicken-fried okra spears and served with a side of dark gumbo roux sauce, a small bottle of hot sauce, and saltine crackers.

Best Taste – Sweet: The Armadillo, James Barrera
Armadillo Cookie Butter Ice Cream Sandwich features cookie butter semifreddo — an Italian rendition of ice cream that means semi-frozen — drizzled with cookie butter and sandwiched between two deep-fried Armadillo-shaped cookies, made with a branding iron.

They were two finalists from a field of 10 that also included: Crispy Crazy Corn, Deep Fried I-35, Lucky Duck Dumplin', Pork Shots, Brisket Brittle, Deep-Fried Halloween, Fernie's Fried Toffee Coffee Crunch Cake, and Texas Pumpkin Poke Cake.

The five judges consisted of three chefs and two media personalities, as follows:

  • Chef Tiffany Derry
  • Chef Uno Immanivong
  • Sports radio personality Donovan Lewis
  • Chef Kent Rathbun
  • 96.3 FM DJ Michelle Rodriguez

They must have loved them some seafood gumbo balls.

It's a bit of a puzzle, given that some of the contestants sounded very creative — more creative than seafood gumbo balls and, at the very least, creative-sounding enough to win the award for Most Creative. Deep Fried I-35, Pork Shots, Brisket Brittle, and a sloppy mishmash called Deep Fried Halloween: These all sound far more creative than seafood fritters.

It's also a bit of a lost opportunity, given that there are some fairgoers who seek out the winners. The judges could have spread the wealth to a third contestant.

But one hesitates to second-guess since one was neither a judge nor an attendee at the awards ceremony, which was closed to the public this year. Perhaps the judges were wrestling with personal demons we can know nothing about. Perhaps it was like an episode of Law & Order with a hung jury that could not reach a verdict.

That said, choosing only two winners for the three awards is not unprecedented: It happened in 2017, the first year that three awards were given out. (Previously, the fair had only given out Best Taste and Most Creative awards until 2017, when Best Taste was broken out into savory and sweet categories.)

In any case, all 10 finalists will be serving their entries during the 2021 State Fair of Texas, which begins September 24.