DALLAS, Tex. – It was around 6 a.m. on Saturday morning when I realized I wasn’t as prepared for this as I thought I was. The previous night was still rolling around in my head like the last stubborn nickel in a piggy bank, and I could still hear the endless stream of “Boomers” that were hurled into the air, left to buzz and mingle with all the “Sooners” that were offered in response.
There was so much crimson, I half expected Moses to show up drinking a Lone Star at one of the patios that were overflowing and playing Fetty Wap all over Uptown. I wanted to experience the Red River Shootout or Rivalry or Showdown or Brand Bowl or whatever it is they’re saying they’re calling it these days for the first time, and here I was, still confused about how exactly I got here – and how I lived so long without being there.
Saturday’s mission was clear, and a paltry two hours of sleep and a belly full of Pecan Lodge and beer wasn’t going to stop me from doing what I was sent to Texas to do. After being told my credential request was denied, I had to come up with another plan of attack. Chris Mottram, my editor, and I discussed it for a bit, but after a little bit of joking, the answer was right there in front of us the whole time. I’d be given a certain amount of money to hit the fair and the game, and I’d essentially have to make choices throughout the day on what I really wanted to do. It was real-life daily fantasy. I dubbed it FairDuel and we settled on $100.
This wasn’t going to be easy, but in the name of responsible journalism, I would eat fried food and try and scalp a ticket to one of the biggest rivalries in college football.
Here’s how my lineup ended up playing out.
S’mores Beer and Deep Fried Cookie Dough Oreos – $14
Before I could start my eating excursion, I needed to flip some money into fair tickets. I don’t know why fairs still do this; I guess to some extent it’s more convenient for the vendors, but sheets of tickets are bulky, individual tickets are easy to lose, and they are worthless the second you walk off the premises. Tickets were set in a 2:$1 ratio, so 20 tickets were 10 dollars, which is easy enough for even the most aggressively thirsty individual to remember.
After the game was over on Saturday, people started scalping their remaining tickets – they just wanted to get out of the fair. Savvy eaters hung out near the exits and got tickets for half their original price or less from sad fans who were in no mood to eat Fried Snickers anymore.
I wasn’t super hungry yet from the night before, but I had to get started somehow. We walked the grounds a bit, passed the tents offering Free Pudding Samples and Wolf Chili (shudders) and rides in Chevy cars and phone cases and got to the food just as the Oklahoma and Texas bands were performing and walking down the way. I felt I needed something light, or light enough, and sweet to stand in place of breakfast.
The S’mores beer and deep fried Oreos at the same tent did the trick. The beer was a chocolate porter with graham crackers and sugar around the rim, and a marshmallow dropped inside. Once the marshmallow soaked up all the beer, it was a special kind of good and I wouldn’t be surprised if those get sold at the fair on their own someday. The Oreos were drizzled in chocolate sauce and a scoop of about a hundred chocolate chips were dropped on top to finish as a garnish. They came highly recommended, and they were good. I don’t remember anything other than thinking “Holy God, this is why I’m here” after eating the first one.
Then it was time to find Big Tex.
Fried Jambalaya and an Orange Creamsicle Jell-O Shot – $9
The first thing I noticed about Big Tex was how gosh darned frightening he really is. You know that scene in Ghostbusters where Raymond thinks of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man when they’re told to choose their destroyer? It’s supposed to be cute and adorable and something he loved from his childhood, but it ends up being super evil and enormous? That smile still haunts me (even though I had a Stay Puft action figure when I was little).
That’s Big Tex’s head. He’s animatronic and gigantic, and he’s waving and telling you to wash your hands before eating and to make sure to visit the AT&T tent. I spent too much time near Big Tex. I understand why people love him. I understand what he means to the history of this game and the State Fair. But I will see Big Tex in my nightmares. And I’m partially of the mindset the fire should have destroyed him forever when it had the chance before he destroys us all.
We set off to look for the Fried Carrot Cake, but couldn’t find it – the State Fair map was far from helpful, and their wayfinding could use some work in general. After doubling back the way we came following our Big Tex experience, I realized it had been a half hour since I had eaten anything, and this was not appropriate fair-going behavior. I considered a fried Frito pie or a quick brisket taco, but eventually settled on the fried jambalaya, on a tip from someone else.
This was worth it, although eating it was a mess and is not recommended while walking. The jambalaya comes in these gigantic round balls, and the second you break into it, all the rice starts to spill out. That said, it was seasoned well (a step above Zatarain’s), and there were legit chunks of chicken and andouille in there. To boot, they included a couple of onion rings.
Right next to the stand, tucked so far away I legitimately wondered if they sold any of them at all, were team-themed Jell-O shots. You could get a Strawberry Oklahoma one, or an Orange Creamsicle Texas one. I went with Texas on a whim, you know, for underdog purposes. It was a perfectly fine Jell-O shot. It was also a harbinger of things to come, apparently.
Holy Moly Carrot Cake Roly and Water – $9
The thing you don’t think about all that much when you’re ordering these deep-fried monstrosities is that a lot of work and pride and care went into creating them. Time spent perfecting a recipe. Experimenting with the batter. Figuring out a way to keep the whole thing intact. And the Big Tex awards really, truly do matter. So when we finally found the vendor with the fried carrot cake (it was inside a building, of course!), I took a moment to recognize how many awards this stand really had.
I did a quick interview with Christi Erpillo, the creator of the “Holy Moly Carrot Cake Roly,” right before crushing my own plate of them. Erpillo’s mother, who is 89 years old, started the Fernie’s Funnel Cake business (which has five locations throughout the fair), and Christi and her sisters now run them.
Martin Rickman: How long have you guys been doing this?
Christi Erpillo: We’ve been here 47 years. This is my 47th year. I started when I was 17. Nobody else has been a finalist in the Big Tex Choice Awards as much as we have.
And the carrot cake is new for this year?
It is, and we won the Big Tex “Best New Fair Food” award for 2015.
Where did the idea come from?
I like carrot cake, and so I wanted to do something with carrot cake. I kind of knew what I wanted to do. We took cinnamon swirl bread, trimmed the edges off, rolled it out flat, then put the cream cheese icing on the inside, then the carrot cake, with carrots and raisins and rolled it up. Normally when I do a recipe, I’ll have to do two or three different variations, but it worked the first time.
And you just knew.
The only thing I changed was maybe a little bit of the seasonings, but that was it.
What is the thing you’ve made over the years you liked the most?
I would say it was the fried peaches and cream because in 2009, we won the Big Tex Choice Awards with that, and Oprah was here. But actually, I think I like the carrot cake better. It’s easier to make. When we did the peaches and cream, we sold four tons of peach slices. The carrot cake is really easy. It’s really simple, and everybody loves it. I’m looking at people’s plates and I very seldom see anybody who has taken only one bite. They love it.
One of the people I was with mentioned that the carrot cake was “not only the best fair food I’ve ever eaten, but arguably one of the best things I’ve eaten in my life,” and I’m inclined to agree. The batter was light, there were two sauces for dipping, and the presentation was on point. Erpillo mentioned other vendors have been telling her to increase the price of the item because it’s been so popular, but she wants to make sure everyone gets to try it.
There was also a bottle of water purchase in here. It’s important to stay hydrated, especially at the fair.
Red River Showdown ticket – $40
Filled with the power of fried carrot cake, I had the belief I could find a ticket in my price range from some kind soul. It didn’t take long. The first guy who approached us when we were holding up the universal “one” scalping sign asked us if we needed a ticket. I nodded and asked how much? He said $40, and I thought he was joking. I knew there were lots of extra available tickets, but figured I wouldn’t get one that cheap, although I was wearing a red shirt. I handed over the money quickly and looked at my location (I really just wanted to get in the door). Lower level, nine rows from the field, right smack in the middle of the Oklahoma student section next to the band. This was going to be fun.
The first thing I noticed when I went into the Cotton Bowl was that this is exactly what would happen if you could do a Create-A-Stadium in a video game and you didn’t use any of your attribute points at all. You just kept the default stadium. There is a video board, kind of. There are two places to find what the score is and how much time is left in the game. There’s no LCD ribbon. Barely any club seats or suites. The press box is nothing special. There are basically no exits, so it’s a constant fire hazard and a nightmare for anyone who gets freaked out when they feel like they can’t escape. It’s a football stadium, and they play football there. It’s perfect.
During the game, there was rarely any music played aside from a name that tune game (one of which was the Macarena), very few ads except for Charlie Strong and Bob Stoops telling us not to text and drive, and they didn’t pipe in any additional noise. You had the bands, the loud fans spending exorbitant amounts of energy yelling that the other team sucks, and the action on the field.
A friend told me it’s like watching a game from 40 years ago. And it’s hard to disagree, despite the video board which rarely even had the down and distance right if it was showing at all.
Oklahoma was a strong favorite, but Sooners fans prefaced every statement they made with a, “but Texas could win the game.” Two Texas fans on their way into the game weren’t so sure.
“Remember when GameDay used to come?” one asked his friend.
“Remember when this game used to mean something?” the other replied.
The weather was hot and cloudless, but the sun was shining brightly, and the sea of red meeting the sea of orange in the middle was insanely cool. This was what I came for. Even though I hadn’t seen much burnt orange the previous night, the Texas fans still showed, and showed up in droves.
“It’s God’s chosen day,” one Oklahoma student announced in the row behind me. Who was I to argue?
It wasn’t Oklahoma’s chosen day. Texas quickly went up 7-0, and the Longhorns recovered a Sooners fumble on the ensuing kickoff. They’d score again on a Tyrone Swoopes rushing touchdown, and Oklahoma fans seemed to know what was coming, so many of them rushed out to get pulled pork sandwiches as if to anticipate how much drinking they’d be doing later on that day.
During Oklahoma’s second timeout of the half late in the first quarter, one student in a red polo, white visor, with khakis and cowboy boots asked his friend how the sandwich was, remarking he “finally got substanance for [his] stomach” before giving a dual thumbs up. Yes, substanance.
The same guy after yet another Sooners punt said, “What are we doing? I don’t know what we’re doing. I want to know what we’re doing.”
At halftime, the sea of red booed the Longhorns as they hopped and skipped into the tunnel. One Texas player stopped just long enough to point at a group of fans and put both hands around his neck, indicating that Oklahoma was choking. They were, and they did. That’s the Red River. And I got to see just how little records matter when two teams hate each other this much.
Texas won 24-17 in a game in which the Longhorns threw the ball 11 times. Charlie Strong supposedly high-fived a bunch of Austin media members not long after donning the gold cowboy hat, but I didn’t see that while I was having a panic attack trying to get to a stairwell packed with sad and sunburnt Oklahoma fans.
After the game in the line to get out of the stadium, one Sooners fan had an announcement to make to no one in particular.
“I need fluids,” he said. “And I need to get the f*ck out of Dallas.”
Shiner Bock & Funnel Cake Ale – $12.50
Following the game, there wasn’t nearly as much hate as there was in the stadium. It all melted away. There’s another year of this to come, then another, then another. A guy his friends called the Ambassador was shaking hands with every Texas fan he met as they filed out near a cheeseburger stand. He’d congratulate them, tell them they “got ’em this year,” and told them they played a great game.
I witnessed an exchange where one Longhorns supporter actually apologized for “kicking y’alls ass,” with the Oklahoma guy responding “you sure did,” and the Texas fan yelling “2-4!” with both hands in the air in a human equivalent of the shruggie emoticon.
We stopped and had a beer and talked to a couple of Texas fans. They couldn’t believe Ohio State was still ranked No. 1 following that Indiana game (they hadn’t seen if the Buckeyes had beaten Maryland yet), mentioned how much they hated Urban Meyer, and made sure to say how badly they hoped TCU would lose to Kansas State later in the day.
The funnel cake ale was some sort of Frankenstein creation, and I’m still not sure how they did it. They put powdered sugar around the rim, which hardened into these delicious sugary crystals, and the beer itself was sweet, but not overpoweringly sweet to the point where you couldn’t finish all of it. The more I drank, the less sweet it got, and it really did taste like a funnel cake. I’m not saying I could have more than one of them, but it was exactly the sort of thing I’d get at a fair as a special treat.
Then it was time to explore the Midway.
Fried Tailgate Party – $7
We weren’t getting sucked into the games and rides for the most part, but we did want to find this fried tailgate we’d heard so much about.
Here was the description:
It was exactly like how it sounded, although thankfully there were no bones. I’m not sure how much of a meat-lover’s delight was released to my palate, but there was lots, and lots, of meat. Essentially this was the best Hot Pocket I’ve ever had, and they even tried to make it look like a sad little football by putting gravy in the design of laces on top.
Unfortunately, there was no favorite team colored paper or emblem toothpicks, but it is October. Maybe they just ran out. Following this fried treat, I wasn’t hungry anymore. I’m still not really hungry. I don’t know if I’ll ever be truly hungry again.
The Texas Star Ferris Wheel – $8
The Texas Star takes you up 212 feet, and there’s a 360 degree view of the Dallas area. So not only are you seeing Downtown Dallas and just about everything else, you can overlook the Fair itself, and the Cotton Bowl. It’s impressive to say the least, and it was the perfect way to cap off a day of football and food.
I realize $8 is a lot to pay for a Ferris Wheel, but I had $100 to set my daily fantasy fair lineup, and I had $8.50 left. I was going out with a bang. I even had $.50 to spare when it was all said and done. (Okay, I had one ticket left.)
There were some tough choices I had to make along the way, but I feel proud of my decisions, even though I ultimately had to say no to the Fletcher’s Corny Dog and the bacon-wrapped turkey leg.
But for $100, I got a ticket to an incredible rivalry game that added to the lore of the game’s history, a whole bunch of food, and some drinks. And one heck of a view of Dallas. The only side effect (aside from maybe a bump in cholesterol)? Now I want to go back every year.