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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

No Oil Shortage at the Fair

In Pomona, vendors are deep-frying Oreos, Twinkies and all kinds of vegetables. Then there is the Krispy Kreme chicken sandwich.

September 21, 2006|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

The hungry and the curious follow the greasy, but alluring, scent of batter frying in hot oil to Charlie Boghosian's stand at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona.

When they arrive, the menu stops them in their tracks: deep-fried Twinkies, deep-friend Oreos, deep-fried avocados, deep-fried pickles, deep-fried olives and more.

Boghosian sees himself as not just a fried-food salesman, but as a fried-food innovator. He recently saw possibilities in churros, the already deep-fried sugary treat. He bought one at a nearby stand and took it to his trailer, where he cut it into four pieces. He mixed the pieces in wet pancake batter and dunked them into a frying vat filled with 370-degree soybean oil.

After two minutes, the churros were crisp, golden pillows. Boghosian scooped them onto a wax paper tray and doused them in chocolate syrup, powdered sugar and rainbow sprinkles.

"It's good," Boghosian said after taking a bite. "But I think I've got to stuff some nuts in there. I'm thinking walnuts. And cheese. Yeah, a sweet, Greek cheese. I bet that would be phenomenal."

At 37, Boghosian has become one of the nation's most esteemed and creative practitioners of extreme fair food.

In a world of the South Beach Diet, counting carbs and "bad cholesterol," he's part of a wave of vendors who have helped breathe new life into state and county fairs with their artery-clogging culinary oddities.

At the State Fair of Texas -- known for introducing the first corn dog in 1942 -- a vendor who won the best taste category last year for his deep-fried peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwiches has stolen headlines again this year for inventing deep-fried Coke.

Other items making the rounds include deep-fried macaroni and cheese, deep-fried spaghetti and deep-fried cosmopolitans -- a pastry filled with cheesecake and topped with cranberry glaze and a lime wedge. And served on a stick.

But even rival fair food investors admit that no one takes it as seriously as Boghosian, who they say seems to have frying oil in his veins.

"Charlie would fry his watch if he knew people would pay to eat it," said Rich Brander, a fellow L.A. County Fair vendor who gained notoriety four summers ago for serving deep-fried Snickers bars.

When not behind his fryer, Boghosian has been busy the last few weeks giving interviews for radio and TV shows.

L.A. County Fair officials said he and his extreme food cohorts have become among their biggest draws. "It's so different that people will want to talk about it," said spokeswoman Wendy Talarico.

At the Orange County Fair, organizers say they try to deep-fry a food to correspond with their annual theme. This year's theme was "Flower Power."

"We tried to deep-fry edible flowers, but they kept falling apart," said the fair's chief operating officer, Steve Beazley. "They wound-up on the cutting-room floor."

Boghosian, however, had a solution: He deep-fried cauliflower.

Boghosian has spent more than half his life traveling from fair to fair. It began as a teenager growing up in San Diego. When he was 14, he saw an advertisement for the San Diego County Fair. He begged his father to let him work there, an excuse to get out of the family grocery store. He promised he'd share all his earnings. His father agreed and Boghosian spent the next 12 summers working at a charbroiled-corn stand.

"It's a joy being at the fair," said Boghosian, a stocky man with a thick goatee, a chunky gold crucifix dangling around his neck and a jovial demeanor. "Most people think we're a bunch of carnies, but we're all educated. We just happen to pick this line of work."

Boghosian, who calls his business Chicken Charlie's, spends his summers on the fair circuit and still calls San Diego home. During the off-season, he's a Christmas tree wholesaler.

In 1997 he talked his corn stand boss, Bob Jackson, into partnering with him on a new stand. Jackson's family taught Boghosian how to fry chicken, which remains a fixture at his booth and accounts for half his sales.

Two years later, Boghosian said he needed a dessert to go with his chicken "like McDonald's has the apple pie," he said.

Visiting a fair in Miami, he noticed a vendor making deep-fried Twinkies.

"He was using wet batter," Boghosian said. "It absorbed too much liquid. I wanted to try myself. So I used an egg wash, then dry pancake mix. I made a real thin crust."

The result?

"The cream!" said Shaun Halladay, a customer trying his first deep-fried Twinkie at Boghosian's stand last week. "It turns into liquid, clear lava. It's all locked in there."

The first year Boghosian offered them, he sold 35,000 at the Orange County, Fresno County and L.A. County fairs.

He knew he was onto something with the Twinkies. So when fair season rolled around again, he wanted to be ready with a new product.

Boghosian and an employee went to a 7-Eleven and bought two of every Hostess item they could find.

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