The joy of fried dough
This weekend’s Feast of St. Gabriel brought crowds Italian and otherwise to Little Italy to enjoy some delights from the homeland. Booths featured cheese and olives, pizza, meatballs, cannoli, and other Italian classics, including dance bands for the older set, raffles to raise money for the church and community center, and surprisingly cheap beer. Festival-goers were also treated to several games of chance, a Bocce Ball tournament, and continuous Bingo, 25 cents a card, in air conditioned comfort. But in my view there’s really only one reason to go to this festival: fried dough.
As a kid growing up in Idaho, fried dough was ubiquitous; we called the flattened chewy sugared discs “elephant ears” and sometimes put honey or cinnamon-sugar on them, just to be wild. (Cue a debate, probably fueled by nationalist sentiments, that there’s a difference between these two, too.) Fried dough has since taken a confusing turn, the industry taken over by funnel cakes. They are in the same Snack/Treat family, sure, made from drizzling the batter into hot oil to create a crunchy nest of fried dough strands. If that’s all you’re after, if you don’t care about the supple soft mouth feel of just-cooked dough that is more yeasted donut than dregs from the fryer, then enjoy your carnival crap. For the more sophisticated palate, fried dough at the Feast of St. Gabriel is where it’s at.
The fried dough booth is situated just east of the bocce ball tournament and a short minute walk from the bingo hall. Balls of the uncooked stuff sit on giant metal pans, waiting their turn under the heel of an Italian-American hand that will push it down and flatten it out for its turn in the oil. This step makes a serious difference in the kind of disc you’ll get when you order. A firm pressing can flatten out the center of the dough so much that you’re left with a crispy cracker-like middle. A soft pressing can leave enough pouf for the center to be just barely cooked through for unbelievable chewiness.
Once the dough is rolled out, the thin rounds are tossed in the oil for a good fry before being pulled out and stacked in metal trays for their trip to the front table where folks are lined up to hand over a measly $3 for this perfect pillow. One woman takes your cash and another lifts the next dough in line and gives it a good toss in a trough of granulated sugar before handing it over for the mess to begin. The whole system is remarkably efficient, and even if it weren’t, it is worth the wait. Be there next year, and remember to grab plenty of napkins, because every sweet tug of dough leaves the fingers coated with sugar and oil, and oh my goodness, it is so good. Fried dough is best eaten sitting down in the bingo hall with their specialty cocktail, the Bocce Ball (orange juice and amaretto, as far as I could taste through the sugar coating on my tongue) in the other hand. Just be prepared to dust off your card between games, because this is one messy business.