It's one thing to seek solace in comfort food, but Americans seem irresistibly drawn this summer to a new artery-clogging snack: deep-fried, batter-coated butter on a stick.
The political buzz this week at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines was nearly overshadowed by the sight of hungry reporters and fair-goers biting into crunchy sticks of fried dough -- at $4 apiece -- as liquefied butter oozed down their chins and fingers. Deep Fried Butter contains frozen butter that's dipped into a sticky cinnamon-honey batter, submerged in bubbling oil until browned, then drizzled with a confectioner's sugar glaze. Ben Ginsburg, legal adviser for GOP presidential aspirant Mitt Romney, described the flavor to ABC News as "like a cinnamon roll, but buttery-er."
Texans may do things bigger than folks in other states, but Deep Fried Butter has been supersized since Abel Gonzales Jr. of Dallas rolled out his batter-dipped balls of frozen, whipped butter at the 2009 State Fair of Texas, an event nicknamed "Big Tex," and bagged the Most Creative food prize. This summer's Iowa variation, which debuted as the fair marked the 100th anniversary of the butter cow -- a life-size cow sculpted from 600 pounds of firm butter -- starts with halving a 4-ounce stick of butter lengthwise. Those 2 ounces come in at approximately 400 calories and 45 grams of fat, before factoring in the batter, oil absorbed during the frying process and the glaze.
The recipe plays into our unbridled love of fat, sugar and salt, said Barbara J. Rolls, a professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State University. "You combine them and you've got the perfect storm. We are not a species with much willpower. So, why not? It's there. You deserve it, right?"
Asked about the psychology behind our attraction to such off-the-caloric-chart snacks when we're struggling with the twin plagues of obesity and diabetes, she pointed to psyches battered by such events as a plummeting stock market and high unemployment. "We're stressed-out and want to reward ourselves and think of it as a treat," said Rolls, a specialist in eating behavior and obesity. "Trying to get people concerned about what's going to happen to them down the road when often they don't know where their next paycheck is going to come from is a really hard sell right now."
'Fatty, Sugary Foods Go Down Easy'
Worse still, she said, Americans aren't limiting their overindulgences to special occasions. She cited current television commercials for foods that are "mostly brown and beige," with only few images of colorful, nutrient-packed vegetables. (Rolls' recent studies have demonstrated that when you hide vegetables in many foods, including baked goods, children prefer them). TV ads featuring men seem to associate being macho with big eating and "almost mock people who want to eat reasonable-sized portions," she said.
Fatty, sugary and salty foods go down easy, said Rolls. "The food around us, it's playing to what we fundamentally like, and it's really hard to find anything else to eat."
Last month, food stands at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa, Calif., where the 2011 theme was "Let's Eat," served up the "coronary combo," pairing up sticks of deep-fried butter with chocolate-covered bacon. The $10.50 price rivaled some health plans' co-payments for a visit to a cardiologist.
The OC's Deep-Fried Butter builds upon a Southern California favorite (by way of Spain and Mexico), the churro, or "Spanish doughnut." That's a length of doughy deliciousness that gets its ribbed surface from piping batter through a star-shaped device called a churrera. At the fair, the churros were cut open, filled with butter, fried until brown and crunchy, then served on a bed of deep-fried chips, covered with a cinnamon-sugar mixture and garnished with whipped cream.
The summer of 2011 may also go down in the annals of snacking for Charlie Boghosian's Deep-Fried Kool-Aid Balls, which he introduced at the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar, Calif. The fried dough balls, which he has described as tasting "kind of like doughnut holes," get their flavor from cherry Kool-Aid drink mix, one of his childhood favorites.
Rolls said that until we make it easier to eat in a more healthful way and make healthy foods the default options, "we'll end up eating fried butter. They should put some veggies in that fried butter."