In a post-Man v. Food world, it’s nigh impossible to make a reality cooking show that will elicit anything more enthusiastic than the word meh from me. Donut Showdown, Cupcake Wars, The Great Food Truck Race—titles that would have once sounded like glorious, pot-induced fever dreams, now make my eyes glaze like Paula Deen slathering brown sugar on a Smithfield ham. It’s all become such a race to the bottom to create ever more idiotic variations on the formula of people yelling at each other + food porn + celebrity chefs being assholes, that even my once-insatiable appetite for schlocky reality TV and food-based programming has dried up.
So when the title card for the Discovery Channel’s newish show Deep Fried Masters appeared on my TV screen, promising all the thrills and boiling oil spills of food-frying competitions at state and county fairs, I was filled with such a deep and abiding apathy that I couldn’t even be bothered reaching for the remote. Lucky I didn’t. Deep Fried Masters is actually kind of… great?
Battering corndogs may sound like a pretty dubious skill, but it quickly becomes clear that inventing dishes that are profitable, portable, and deep-fryable ain’t so easy.
In an excellent post on Vulture last month, Margaret Lyons argued a compelling case that skill-based reality shows are the best kind of reality shows. When done well, the audience gets a really insightful peak into an otherwise foreign world (hairdressing, tattooing, shooting, performing drag shows) via contestants with a niche skill set and the expert judges’ critiques of them. Deep Fried Masters is this kind of show. Battering corndogs may sound like a pretty dubious skill, but it quickly becomes clear that inventing new dishes that are boundary-pushing, tasty, quick to make, profitable, portable, and, most importantly, deep-fryable, ain’t so easy.
Many of the Deep Fried Masters constants are people whose families have been in the fair-food business for generations. They make their own recipes from scratch, take their craft seriously, and find genuine fulfillment in serving up fat fried in fat to families. The judges, too, are all people who have made a fortune in the state fair food business—no Alton Browns, no Gordon Ramseys. They don’t flinch or snark when a contestant serves up a syrup-covered deep-fried sandwich of French toast filled with mac and cheese and hamburger. They chew thoughtfully, suggest it would be better cut in half and with a thinner patty, but ultimately declare it “delicious” and say it could make the woman who made it famous.
You may come away from Deep Fried Masters a little sick to your stomach, but you will learn something. Having now sat through all the three episodes (North Carolina Fair, Texas Fair, Georgia Fair), here are five things that I now know about the greasy world of state fair fare.