I am pressed into a corner of a trailer kitchen called Charlie's Chicken, where owner Charlie Boghosian, mixes batter with yogurt and M&M's. It is an epicenter within the rarefied world of Extreme Deep-Fry. In this long galley scarcely three feet wide, I count eight other people bustling with remarkable calm considering their proximity to giant vats of boiling oil. It's a strikingly thin space to be producing some of the world's fattiest food.
Suddenly, Mr. Boghosian makes a move for a package of sour gummi worms. He tears it open, and drops them into the batter.
"This'll work great," he chuckles with the kind of delight that calls to mind a mad scientist about to throw the giant electric switch. "But you've got to make sure they're completely covered in batter – otherwise they'll liquefy."
I make a note of that.
Having heard that Boghosian could deep-fry anything, I hunted him up, dumped a bunch of ingredients on his counter and threw down the gauntlet. I'm not accustomed to bringing props to a news story, but I'm not above it either, particularly if I may have to ingest them. I will also add right here and now that no animals were harmed in the writing of this story.
Boghosian may not be the undisputed king of extreme deep-fry, because little is undisputed in this world – but he is certainly a king. In his realm, you will encounter deep-fried Twinkies; a deep-fried veggie platter that includes olives, asparagus, and artichoke hearts; deep-fried Oreos (Boghosian's personal favorite), and his hot new creation – a Krispy Kreme chicken sandwich. That's a Krispy Kreme doughnut cut in half, surrounding a fried chicken patty with a viscous wedge of cheese melted in. The whole thing is not, I repeat not, dipped in batter and deep-fried, which makes it some of the lighter fare that Boghosian serves up, and also the cause of recent protest from two San Francisco radio talk-show hosts.
"They were saying, 'We got gypped [because] it's not truly deep fried,' '' recounts Boghosian. "But why would you deep fry something that has already been deep fried?" (Never mind that Boghosian was recently observed deep-frying churros, deep-fried Mexican cinnamon treats.)
"The callers completely backed me up on this one," he says. (Customers backed him up, too, with $27,000 in sales in the first three weeks he offered the sandwich.)
If you haven't yet run from the room, you may be wondering, where could this phenomenon possibly have begun?
Deep-frying, it turns out, dates back to ancient Rome, like most cultural achievements of Western civilization, with the possible exception of space travel. There's a deep-fry recipe for chicken in a collection by Apicius – the Emeril Lagasse of his day. As near as experts can figure, he lived around the time of Jesus, which, had they met, could have had quite some impact on the Last Supper, to say nothing of "The Da Vinci Code." The name of the recipe sounds more like a Harry Potter spell, Pullum Frontonianum, as do some of the ingredients – liquamen, saturei, and defritum. Even if I could tell you what they were, I'll bet you'd be hard-pressed to find them at your local Whole Foods.
"And you should be glad of it," laughs Lynn Olver, editor of the website Food Timeline. She describes liquamen as a "nasty smelling" sauce made of boiled fish guts.
Doughnuts, hush puppies, and funnel cakes date back to the Middle Ages and form "the cornerstones" of deep-fried food, Ms. Olver continues. (It hadn't occurred to me that deep-fried food could have cornerstones.) She also attributes the relatively recent rise in the popularity of deep-fried foods to kitchen luminary – and possibly the tidiest deep-fryer in the world – Martha Stewart.
"She popularized an old Cajun recipe, deep-fried turkey," says Olver, "which sparked something of a cottage industry at well-heeled cookware shops in deep fryers."
Tony kitchens the likes of Ms. Stewart's are generally not, however, the hot spot of deep-fried action. Actually, the locus is fairs – state and county ones – where people are seeking a thrill, even in their snack food.
"Some things you just never eat in any other venue," says Olver, pointing out that a deep-fried Twinkie ora "Texas donut," that beloved confection up-sized to the circumference of a steering wheel, probably wouldn't do well in a restaurant. Probably not.
According to Olver, extreme deep-fried food only evolved – if that's the right word – in the '90s. Deep-fried candy bars and tacos put it on the culinary map in 1999. These were quickly followed by pretzels, cheesecake, Coke (fried batter made with the soda), and in Tennessee, a once-in-every-17-years event – cicadas.
Charlie Boghosian was a natural for this world, possessing as he does the twin passions of deep-frying and experimentation. That's why I have sought him out today at his trailer kitchen, parked directly across from the grandstand at the L.A. County Fair, naturally. I purchased the most saccharine and appalling ingredients I could think of, getting consultation from my own personal experts, the kids. Here's what we got: Pop-Tarts, refried beans (what could be better than deep-fried refried beans?) sour gummi worms, sushi, an energy bar, chocolate chip cookie dough, mung bean sprouts, vanilla yogurt with M&M's, bloodberry flavor Count Wonkula Donutz Candy (that unfortunately was DOA, having liquefied in the California sun before it ever had a chance at glory in the fryer).
Boghosian passes his hands over each of the ingredients, murmuring approvingly. He snaps up the yogurt, moments later flashing on the idea of adding the gummi worms. Within minutes, he's plating balls of deep-fried vanilla yogurt. He quickly moves on to the sushi, then the chocolate chip cookie dough. He finishes with the Pop-Tarts, which he covers with a bit of strawberry jam (the effect: a nuclear attack made of sucrose).
"You can deep-fry almost anything," explains Boghosian, as if this point needs stating by now. "The secret to making it good is all in the batter." But he declines to elaborate further, citing the 300 vendors around him who would like to know his secret.
Good news, though – in case you were thinking of trying this at home, Boghosian is compiling a cookbook. Its title is also a secret, but you can bet dollars to doughnuts – big doughnuts stuffed with just about anything – it'll be low in cost, high in calories, and squeamishly pleasing like a good horror movie.
What's next in extreme deep-fried foods is hard to imagine, and perhaps better left unimagined. But you might want to keep your defritum handy, and rest easy knowing that even as you read this, some of the most inventive minds in America are already heating up their oil.