Year after year, since the competition kicked off five years ago, I’ve loved helping judge the Gold Buckle Foodie Awards at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. After all, I have the other 364 days to go on a diet. How else can I hope to taste nearly all the foods served by vendors on the midway and in the mammoth exhibition hall? And how else can I hope to locate instant classics like these Red Velvet Frosty Bites by Custom Confections, the iconic cake baked in a cup, filled with cold ice cream and topped with what amounts to cheesecake icing. These Bites, by the way, convinced us judges to give them the top award in the category titled Most Creative Food.
At a rodeo, or a carnival, or anything else serving what’s come to be lionized as “fair food,” some dishes aren’t so much Creative as they are just Big. That certainly applies to this Super Baked Potato from Harlon’s BBQ. I believe the potato itself is large, even though it’s pretty hard to locate it under this onslaught of smoked beef brisket, sausage and turkey. I, for one, love that each meat has a kind of “zone” to itself. Very orderly, that way. This baked potato, which I rated even higher personally, took home third place in the Best Value Food category, behind the Ribs and Chicken Platter from Saltgrass Steakhouse in first and the Pizza on a Stick from Swain’s in second.
I found myself wondering yesterday, as dish after dish appeared before me, when in history “more” became indisputably better – when a corndog had to have chili and cheese ladled over the top or, even worse, when a cheeseburger had to be bunned, battered and deep-fried. When confronted with a simple, straightforward funnel cake topped with powdered sugar, I wondered if some things weren’t created by God to be exactly what they are. Then again, we judges did give a second place in Most Creative Food to a Donut Double Bacon Cheeseburger, with a glazed donut where the bun ought to be.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the phrase trompe l’oeil used on a sign at the rodeo, and since “potato” comes out “potatoe” often as not, I’m not so sure I want to. But one of my favorites has got to be this fool-your-eye spin on an ice cream sundae. The ice cream is mashed potato/e, while the topping is BBQ beef, and the chocolate sauce is, naturally, replaced here by barbecue. As required (by me) for this sort of thing, the creation from Frankie B. Mandola at Bum’s Blue Ribbon Grill is not only clever but delicious.
Frankie B. doesn’t need to cry for me or for Argentina, for not winning an award for the sundae – which did cause quite a stir when it first appeared a year or two ago. This year Bum’s Blue Ribbon Grill picked up a second in Best New Flavor for these Grilled Pork Ribees with Dirty Rice. I loved this one, especially the exemplary Dirty Rice. It came in right behind the Cookie Dough Parfait from Aunt Edmoe’s and right ahead of the Do-E-Oreo from a vendor called Fried What! Spelling and punctuation are theirs, not mine…
For the Rodeo’s nearly 30,000 volunteers, days can get started mighty early. And that means that, when it comes to food, they are the midway’s ”first responders.” One of the breakfast dishes they are – not surprisingly – responding to best this year is this Cowboy Breakfast from Texas Skillet. It was the first item to arrive at our judging table, and (since judges start off hungry in hopes of survival) we were very happy to see it. We gave it second place in the Best Breakfast Food category, topped by the Big Stone Breakfast Sandwich from Stubby’s Cinnamon Rolls and followed by the Breakfast Taco from Burton Sausage Co.
These deep-fried (or were they chicken-fried, like half the other things at Rodeo?) deviled eggs were part breakfast and part appetizer. It was, generally, considered a cool idea – not least because most of us are familiar with the sausage-laden “Scotch eggs” so popular in Great Britain. Maybe next year we’ll see some Deviled Scotch Eggs. Nobody ever made us judges hate them by adding sausage to anything. And while we’re at it, Fried Food honors went to the Original Corny Dog from new vendor Fletcher’s, followed by the Fried Brownie Ball with Ice Cream from Custom Confections (yes, they of those red velvet cupcakes) and the Fried Oreos from Still’s Funnel Cakes.
How on earth did I get off the Rodeo grounds without taking a photo of anything on a stick? We did judge a sausage on a stick that was about two feet long, with all the resultant obscene remarks. But while you’re eating these gooey-delicious loaded potato chips, I can tell you that the Food on a Stick category ended up with Shrimp Diablo from Berryhill Baja Grill in the top spot, followed by Pizza on a Stick from Swain’s and The Big Rib from RCS Carnival.
And while none of my personal favorites took home awards in it, that leaves only the official Best Dessert category. Winners were the surprisingly simple Cinnamon Glazed Pecans from Go Nuts and More in first, Apple Slices with Caramel from Carmelot (I DO like the name!) in second, and traditional Apple Pie & Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla in third. All good, obviously. But what I really liked best – other than those cupcakes – were the frozen cheesecakes on a stick pictured above and the funnel cake topped with bananas just below. You see, bananas! Really now, who ever said you couldn’t eat healthy at the Houston Rodeo?