If a westerly wind is blowing just right along I-10, you can almost taste the turkey legs, Snickers, and sausage being roasted, deep-fried and stuck on a stick in Dominic’s Palmieri’s kitchen — from 1,000 miles away in Phoenix. He’s putting the finishing touches on his latest carnival goodies for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which opens February 25.
Palmieri is the self-anointed “Midway Gourmet” for Ray Cammack Shows, responsible for every corn dog, burger, funnel cake, and ridiculous 17-inch cone of french fries at the rodeo’s carnival. It was Palmieri who pondered a pat of butter one day and wondered, “What would make this butter even better? How about I dip it in batter, deep-fry it and sprinkle powder sugar on top?” Huge hit. Deep-fried Red Velvet Cakes? Like hot cakes. Pizza on a stick? Okay, that’s sacrilege — but it sold.
Palmieri’s test kitchen at Ray Cammack Shows headquarters is 20-by-20 feet, well ventilated, and equipped with multiple deep fryers, a flat top grill, Brazilian Churrasco-style rotisserie, wood-burning pizza oven, barbecue grill, and a machine that does nothing but crush Cheetos. He doesn't have time to crush 'em by hand. He'll need 1-1/2 truckloads of Cheetos for the rodeo.
The man behind the fyer
From the time the Arizona State Fair closes in October to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo opening in February, Palmieri is in that kitchen, apron tied tight and sleeves rolled up, concocting new carnival food items that will have guests saying, “Seriously?” (In most cases, yeah, seriously tasty.) Pamieri is the brains behind the Big Rib, two pounds of lean steak impaled on a 17-inch steam-cleaned rib bone. He is the Babe Ruth of deep-fried Baby Ruths.
Palmieri is all about fun food, but it’s hard work and serious business. Ray Cammack Shows handles the concessions, rides, and games for nine fairs each year. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is its biggest by far, and Palmieri has been fretting non-stop, getting every bag of Cheetos ordered and crunched, making sure his cotton candy machines are spinning warp speed.
Turkey legs — the original food on a stick — are always popular, so he’ll have eight truckloads rolling towards Houston next month. Two years ago, Palmieri introduced roasted corn covered with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. They were a hit, so this year, he bought three entire fields of corn as high as an elephant’s eye.
What's new in the midway?
Palmieri has upped the midway’s food game since Ray Cammack Shows took charge of the carnival’s cuisine 25 years ago. Each year brings new items, with Palmieri keeping his eye on fair food trends. He wouldn’t reveal specific new items coming to the rodeo this year — the carnival industry is killer competitive — but he did drop some hints.
“It takes a few years for trends to change in this business. While the fair season is 10 months for us, in each city the fair may last only 10 days, or 20 days for a large event like the rodeo. People will try something new one year and look forward to trying it again the following year and the year after that. It takes people a while before they start looking to try different things.
Deep-fried butter was really popular about 10 years when we introduced it. It was the same for fried Oreo cookies. Three or four years later, we had to start thinking of different things. It never stops being a challenge to stay ahead of trends.
“Now the popular trend is toward spicy. For example, we’ve taken funnel cakes, traditionally a classic sweet treat, and made it available as a spicy with Sriracha. We really focused on spicy last year by expanding our items covered with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, including cotton candy and french fries.
So you never know, this year you may come across a wonderful spicy meat item. We’re working on a new line of specialty drinks that will be super fun, very ‘rodeo.’ And there will be a few surprises as always.”