Kevin McGrath's family has been frying up fair food since 1978, and for most of that time, the funnel cake never really changed.
"Cake batter, poured through a funnel and deep-fried, and after that, it's a matter of toppings," said McGrath, the owner of Cape Coral-based The Best Around Concessions. "Everybody likes powdered sugar. Can't go wrong with powdered sugar."
Then came the 2011 Florida State Fair, and the four words that would change the game for good:
Red. Velvet. Funnel. Cake.
"It was the first new funnel cake in my lifetime that I remember," McGrath said. "Nobody had ever made a splash with a new funnel cake. The Red Velvet made a big splash nationwide, especially after it got on national news outlets and the Travel Channel." The Best Around didn't invent Red Velvet Funnel Cake, but "to my knowledge, we were the first ones that hit it big on a national news network. After that, everybody started doing Red Velvet."
That was funnel cake's big break, the star-is-born moment that kick-started a creative revival of the simple, centuries-old treat. "Now, we have more ideas than we have time to create," McGrath said. "We'll have new stuff coming out for years and years to come."
It starts this week with the Funnel Cake Cheeseburger, a beef patty with cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato slapped between two crispy bun-sized cakes. The meaty midway monstrosity makes its local debut at this year's Florida State Fair, which runs through Feb. 16 in Tampa.
"The combination of salty and sweet is actually pretty good," McGrath said. But he adds: "It is a messy item, there's no doubt."
Corn dogs and deep-fried Twinkies will forever have their defenders, but no food is more synonymous with fair and festival fun than the funnel cake.
Humans have been frying dough and batter in various forms for centuries, but credit for the funnel cake as Americans know it typically goes to the 19th century Pennsylvania Dutch, who would serve a recipe handed down from their Germanic ancestors at harvest and holiday gatherings. In 1950 it appeared at the Kutztown Folk Festival, a celebration of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, and has grown in popularity as a fair food for the ages.
Unlike its upper-crust cousins the beignet and zeppole, you won't find funnel cake on a fine-dining menu. Occasionally, sure, some hipster pub-grub hangout will serve funnel fries as a gluttonous, sharable dessert, but if you want the real thing, you have to hit up a midway.
"It's a traditional treat you can't get anywhere else," said Jane Harris (left), a.k.a. "Mama Jane," who serves as The Best Around's funnel cake maestro. Harris, 57, is the one who tinkers with the recipes, and takes great pride in the results — she even launched a website, ILoveFunnelCakes.com, where you can order their Red Velvet Funnel Cake mix and cream cheese icing for $9.99.
Like McGrath said, all it is is about 4 oz. of batter, usually from a pre-made mix, drizzled into a ring in a deep fryer for maybe 30 seconds a side. Precise measurements are impractical; "it's more done by feel," he said. "If you try and portion-control it, you're too slow." It's also best consumed straight out of the fryer — "if you try to reheat it, you put out a greasy, nasty product."
On a good day, The Best Around will sell 600 funnel cakes at the Florida State Fair. Southern states tend to be funnel-cake crazy, which makes the Florida State Fair — one of the first major fairs of the calendar year — a good launchpad for new products like the Red Velvet.
"Depending on what part of the country you go to, some people have never heard of a funnel cake," McGrath said. Many Midwesterners prefer the doughier elephant ear, as do Northeasterners — although they refer to it as "fried dough," and often prefer it with pizza sauce.
Here in melting-pot Florida, the market is hit and miss. "You go down to Miami, and funnel cake won't sell worth a darn, and they'll line up around the corner for an elephant ear," McGrath said.
And Tampa? "It's a mixed bag, but people lean towards funnel cake, especially since the new creations of funnel cakes have been coming about over the past seven or eight years."
The Red Velvet was only the beginning. "It needed to be reinvented, and the Red Velvet did a good job of reinventing it," said Harris, who tests new recipes on her six kids and extended family in Pensacola. "The last five years, you're seeing every flavor under the sun come out."
At last year's fair, The Best Around unveiled two new flavors, Bacon Maple and Cotton Candy. Elsewhere, they've sold Pumpkin Spice, Pineapple Inside Out, Caramel Apple and German Chocolate. Other vendors are pushing funnel cakes in even wilder directions — last year, a concessionaire won a "Most Creative" trophy from the Texas State Fair for his Funnel Cake Ale.
Not every idea is a winner. McGrath said The Best Around attempted a chocolate and peanut butter funnel cake, but realized that could contaminate the frying oil for anyone with a nut allergy. And they're workshopping other out-there concepts. "We've got an idea for a savory funnel cake, not necessarily a sweet one," he said. "That's one that is a little bit scary."
Not to Harris, who plans to experiment with the savory cake during slow days at this year's fair. "I found the spice that I want to use for that one," she told McGrath this week, eyes gleaming with excitement. "I found. The spice."
Brick-and-mortar restaurants have been slow to adopt the funnel cake, and for good reason — it's about as messy to make as it is to eat. But some places have tried.
The Outpost, a casual but stylish bar near the University of Tampa known for its big selection of canned craft beer, has sold funnel fries — a less-messy, easier-to-share variant of the cake — since opening in 2013. As soon as a food service rep gave owners a sample, "we tried it and instantly fell in love with it, and knew it was going to go on the menu then and there," said kitchen manager Matt Foster. The kitschy dessert comes with caramel, powdered sugar and "a few pieces of pretzel salt to add some contrast and depth to the flavor profile," he said.
Datz, South Tampa's creative haven for all things deep-fried and fattening, recently tweeted an image of a funnel cake cheeseburger. Responses ranged from Is this real life? to OMG! Me want to Wow. Just wow. Wrote one follower: Perfect last meal candidate.
For the record, said Datz co-owner Suzanne Perry, the over-the-top photo actually came from someplace in Iowa, not Datz. "We haven't tried this one yet," she said. "I think we should!"
For now, the only spot to get a funnel cake burger is the fair. Crazy innovations like this create "good buzz for the fair and for the industry," McGrath said, and drive up sales of other products. Before debuting the Red Velvet, sales of plain ol' funnel cakes were dragging. But as tricked-out cakes became a fad, the golden original has also rebounded. "I think it brought it back," he said. "It reminded people, 'Oh, yeah! Funnel cakes!'"
And if, at the end of the State Fair, McGrath and Harris have a little extra batter left over, no matter — the very next week, they'll be back slinging cakes at the Florida Strawberry Festival. Harris even has a new funnel cake creation all lined up for Plant City, but all she'll divulge at this point is that it involves bacon and a stick.
"They've asked for a new item that hasn't been anywhere else," Harris said with an impish smile. "I always have new things in the wings."