Forget Thanksgiving. The most gluttonous day of the year is Super Bowl Sunday, where bowl after bowl and paper plate after paper plate is filled with finger-food bacchanalia that would make even the mad genius responsible for the TGI Friday’s appetizer selection blush (and certainly the ancient Romans). And so, all week leading up to game day, we’ll be offering up our own menu of scientific investigations, origin stories and majestic feats of snacking that not even the biggest sporting event of the year can top. Read all of the stories here.
I was at Target two days ago, and to my amazement, I could not find a deep fryer. While they had more than a dozen different air fryers for sale, it took me more than 10 minutes to locate the sole deep fryer they offered. When I found it, I was disappointed to see that it was a huge $60 behemoth that took up an obscene amount of counter space. All I wanted to do was deep fry a few pieces of a T-shirt, and that monstrosity was far more than I needed.
I should probably back up. See, I recently discovered the online subculture of deep frying utterly ridiculous shit — water, Coca-Cola, watermelon and sunglasses, for example — and realized that we must be at the very peak of fried foods. So, I figured I’d join in by seeing what Homer Simpson’s infamous deep fried T-shirt from Season 11 of The Simpsons might taste like. After all — like so many other prescient moments from The Simpsons — the 23-year-old exchange between Homer and Marge seems to be perfectly emblematic of our present, out-of-control times.
Homer: See Marge, I told you they could deep fry my shirt.
Marge: I didn’t say they couldn’t. I said you shouldn’t.
The zealous deep fryers of America have all become Homer — even though they shouldn’t be deep frying these things, they can, and therefore, they must. It’s a pretty absurd state of affairs we’re in.
Deep frying has been around since ancient Egypt, yet food historian Jennifer Jensen Wallach — who authored How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture — notes that there’s something peculiarly American about fried foods. “When Europeans would visit America in the late 19th century, they thought the food was disgusting because of how greasy it was,” she tells me. Food historian Michael Wise — who, along with Wallach, co-edited The Routledge History of American Foodways — explains that Americans were also eating a lot more meat than Europeans were. “Frying was a convenient way to prepare the meat because it could be done with limited water,” he explains. “The fat could be reused, and it made the food more portable. Frying foods wasn’t really about taste back then, but there are exceptions, like donuts, which were considered delicious and were fried for taste.”
Donuts, in particular, are one of the three foods that food historian John T. Edge tells me are crucial to understanding America’s fried-food trajectory. Edge is the author of a wide variety of books on American foods — including Fried Chicken: An American Story and The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South — and he says that, donuts, french fries and fried chicken are the three American foods that spread fastest. This also led to a “broader American embrace of fried foods.”
In particular, frying dough has been a thing for a very long time. Remember how I said ancient Egyptians fried stuff? Well, it was dough that they were frying. As for the donuts we know today, Smithsonian Magazine explains that Dutch settlers brought them to Manhattan in the 1700s under the name “oily cakes.” Despite the name, it was easy to see how delicious they were, and they managed to catch on. Then, during World War I, donuts became particularly popular among American soldiers in France who were served them by female volunteers.
Soldiers liked the donuts so much that when they got back home, they just wanted more. As that Smithsonian article explains, “By the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, donuts were … billed as ‘the food hit of the Century of Progress.’” In 1937, Krispy Kreme was founded, which soon gave rise to a chain of restaurants, paving the way for Dunkin’ Donuts in the 1950s.
Moving onto french fries, National Geographic says it’s unclear if they originated in France or Belgium, but they became popular in Europe in the late 1700s, particularly those from French street vendors. As for America, french fries didn’t really catch on until after World War I, or after soldiers had tried them in Europe. Following the war, the first White Castle opened in 1921, and they paired their small burgers with a side of fries. French fries were cheap, easy and quick to make, and they complemented meat well, making them the perfect side dish for a burger, which is why all the other fast-food burger joints would follow White Castle’s example.
In terms of fried chicken, Wallach says that it can be traced back to Africa. “There was a tradition in West Africa of frying food, including poultry, in palm oil, and when those people became enslaved, fried foods were a way to remember home,” she explains. “And because slaves were the ones doing the cooking, these foods got passed on to White Southerners as well. We often associate fried foods with Southern cooking, but you can trace that line back all the way to West Africa.”
In the early 20th century, Edge says that as Americans began raising chickens in greater and greater numbers, they became an appealing, lower-cost commodity. Cheaper chicken paved the way for fried chicken chain restaurants after World War II, with the first Chick-fil-A opening in 1946, followed by the first KFC and Church’s Fried Chicken, both of which debuted in 1952.
The 1950s is a key decade in America’s deep-fryer history because of the explosion in new fast-food restaurants. In addition to Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC and Church’s, a number of other still-relevant fast-food chains appeared, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, Sonic and Jack in the Box. All of these restaurants made use of deep fryers to deliver fast and tasty food, getting Americans hooked in the process.
The events of the next two decades were significant as well. As more fast-food joints — like Wendy’s — continued to open, American home kitchens also experienced a cooking boom beginning in the 1960s thanks to the overwhelming popularity of Julia Child’s television show. Child obviously wasn’t deep frying Twinkies, but Wallach explains that she gave Americans more confidence to experiment in the kitchen. Because of that — and our already established love for deep-fried foods — we began to see deep frying in the home. This was particularly popular during the late 1970s thanks to inventions like Presto’s Fry Daddy.
But there’s another, infinitely stranger track in America’s battered-and-fried saga: Fair and carnival food. U.S. fairs date back to at least 1765 with Pennsylvania’s first York State Fair, but 1893’s Chicago World’s Fair popularized the idea of the travelling carnival as we know it. Along the way, it’s also credited with introducing several famous foods to the public, including hot dogs, chili, brownies, shredded wheat and Aunt Jemima pancake mix.
A staple of deep-fried carnival food — then and now — is the corn dog. While its inventor is a matter of dispute, two of the corn dog’s half-dozen origin stories trace it back to state fairs, including the 1938 Texas State Fair and the 1941 Minnesota State Fair. The other obvious deep-fried carnival staple is the funnel cake — which dates all the way back to Medieval times — but became popular at American carnivals beginning in the 1960s with Pennsylvania’s Kutztown Folk Festival.
Starting in the late 1990s, however, deep-fried food got a whole lot weirder. People had been frying Oreos for a couple of decades — Jay Leno even made a joke about it in 1998 — but it was Charlie Boghosian, better known as “Chicken Charlie,” who really made it famous at the 2002 L.A. County Fair. Recalling how it came to be, Boghosian tells me it was inspired by the McDonald’s apple pie. “I was eating one of those at McDonald’s, and I told my brother that we needed something like that for our chicken restaurant — we needed a fun dessert,” he says. “So me and him went to 7-Eleven and bought everything off the Hostess rack and fried a bunch of it. In addition to that, we already had some Oreos, so we fried them, too. The two of us decided that the Oreo cookie, dipped in our batter, and then topped with chocolate, powdered sugar and rainbow sprinkles, was better than everything else, so we picked that for our new item at the fair that year.”
Over the next few years, Boghosian would become famous as “The Man Who Fries Everything,” with outlandish experiments that ranged from avocados to Klondike bars. In 2006, he was on the front page of the L.A. Times for his Krispy Kreme Chicken Sandwich, which featured fried chicken inside of a raspberry-filled donut. “There were three stories on the cover that day,” he remembers. “One was about President Bush, the other was about Hugo Chavez and the third was about me and my Krispy Kreme Chicken Sandwich.”
Similarly, the deep-fried Twinkie received much fanfare by the New York Times in 2002. At the Brooklyn fish-and-chip restaurant Chip Shop, owner Christopher Sell began making them on a whim, explaining that throwing a bunch of random shit in a deep fryer is a tradition he carried over from his native England. “That’s what you do in a chip shop. You buy a bunch of things and toss them in the deep fryer until you hit on something that actually tastes good,” Sell told the Times. (I will note, however, that Boghosian had already fried up 10,000 Twinkies at the L.A. County Fair the previous year.)
Then, in 2005, came The State Fair of Texas’ Big Tex Choice Awards, an annual competition that began awarding prizes to food vendors with the most creative and tastiest deep-fried concoctions. Perhaps the most famous of these was 2009’s winner, deep fried butter, which was invented by “extreme fryer” Abel Gonzales Jr. (better known as “Fried Jesus”).
With Sell in the East, Chicken Charlie in the West and Fried Jesus in the South, frying weird shit became the norm in the early aughts. As Thrillist explained in 2017, “Both Gonzales and Boghosian represent this new wave of deep frying that’s taken fairs from plain drumsticks and pizza to pretty much anything you can stick in an oil jacuzzi.” Even in the pandemic, the Big Tex Choice Awards are still going strong. In 2021, deep-fried seafood gumbo balls won for Best Taste in the savory category, and a fried cookie-butter sandwich called “The Armadillo” won it for the sweets.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the practice of deep frying weird shit also proved to be successful online. “Even before the internet, shows like Fear Factor did a lot of gross-out food stunts, so when the internet came along, we were already primed for that,” explains Internet historian Don Caldwell, editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme. “With frying in particular, the speed of frying is helpful. The barrier to entry is less than it would be for some other kind of cooking, where you’d have to edit a video down more. Also, fried foods are kind of viral in and of themselves. Frying Coca-Cola was a thing on YouTube for a while, and a couple of years ago, there was this deep-fried, barbecue-stuffed pizzadilla that went viral. There’s a real novelty to deep frying unusual things that lends itself well to the internet.”
Maybe this is why my trip to Target gave me such pause. Again, there was just one model of deep fryer in the entire store, yet more than a dozen different air fryers of all shapes, sizes and colors. I eventually found a small, $20 deep fryer at Walmart, but it definitely made me wonder if deep frying hadn’t jumped the shark — or at the very least, reached its zenith. Indeed, when I cross-referenced “deep fryer” and “air fryer” in Google Trends, it was abundantly clear that deep frying was on a major downswing, having peaked back in 2012. “Air fryer,” on the other hand, had soared past deep frying at around the same time.
Rita Mock-Pike — the editor-in-chief of the literary and art magazine MockingOwl Roost and author of the forthcoming The I Love Trader Joe’s Air Fryer Cookbook — has some ideas as to why this is the case. “I’d imagine deep fryers are less popular since the rise of the air fryer because of two things,” she says. “For one, deep fryers tend to take more work and energy than an air fryer in many cases. Also, because obesity is such a problem, people are looking for healthier ways of eating easily prepared, tasty meals. Air fryers don’t require the use of oil to cook with, so a lot of folks are using air fryers as a way to reduce excess fat and oil in their diet.”
Of course, when I ask Boghosian about the air fryer’s supplanting of the deep fryer, he reacts in a way you might expect a man named “Chicken Charlie” to. With a hint of scorn in his voice, he tells me, “Air frying is not frying — that’s an oven. Air frying is a gimmick. It doesn’t change anything about frying.”
Fortunately, his mood picked back up when I informed him of my fried T-shirt experiment. “I recommend a sweet batter, like a pancake batter,” he tells me. “Then fry it, and drizzle chocolate and powdered sugar all over it. I’m sure your shirt is going to taste delicious.”
Armed with Boghosian’s recipe and my new deep fryer, I continued on with my Simpsons-inspired concoction. It was never my intention to fry an entire T-shirt — I wanted to taste the shirt, not wear it. So I cut one of the sleeves off of a brand-new, 100-percent cotton T-shirt to make little rings with, same as you might do with onion rings or calamari.
Next, I made up my pancake batter, heated up my deep fryer and plopped the first T-shirt ring in the oil. It didn’t really work, though, as it stuck to the basket and tore apart when I pulled it off. For the second one, I submerged the basket first, and then slowly lowered the batter-sleeve-ring into the oil above the basket. After a minute or two, I pulled out the basket and had what seemed to be a pretty decent-looking snack.
I then did two more rings, improving with each. Finally, as Boghosian instructed, I topped my three T-shirt rings with powdered sugar and a drizzle of chocolate sauce.
Unfortunately, it never really occurred to me that a T-shirt isn’t actually edible, even if it is 100-percent cotton. When I bit into the ring, the batter tasted good, but the shirt tasted like a fucking oily shirt. I chewed it and stretched it like hell, but I couldn’t bite through it. I thought about frying up a tinier scrap — one that I could eat whole — but I backed out, reasoning (probably correctly) that if I couldn’t bite through a shirt, it was likely to ravage my insides if digested.
Given the times we live in, it also occurred to me that maybe I should try air frying the shirt. But then I stopped myself. Air frying, even if it’s delicious, isn’t really frying at all, and Homer Simpson would certainly never air fry a T-shirt. Admittedly, too, I feared the scorn of Chicken Charlie. What might become of me if I ate an air-fried shirt after failing to eat a deep-fried shirt?
The risk was just too great, so I let go of the idea and just fried myself up an Oreo instead. Needless to say, it was delicious.