Since 2005, the State Fair of Texas has crowned winners of the Big Tex Choice Awards, a competition among concessionaires to see who can devise the most outlandish fair-ready foods. Fried Coke, fried bubblegum, and fried peanut butter-jelly-banana sandwiches have all taken home top honors. This year, Ruth’s stuffed fried taco cone — a portable Tex-Mex meal — won the savory category. For 18 tickets or $9, barbacoa, black beans, cilantro rice, queso fresco, pico de gallo, salsa verde, and a lime wedge are stuffed into hand-rolled tortilla cones that are sealed with a toothpick, shaped around a foil globe, fried, and then carefully unmolded.
Big Tex recognition “is like winning the Super Bowl,” says 85-year-old Ruth Hauntz, owner of the big award-winner, Ruth’s Tamale House. Hauntz and her husband Adolph brought Ruth’s Tamale House to the State Fair of Texas in 1988. Hauntz estimates that the honor will double or triple business at her two stands. As long as her team can keep up with volume (those cones truly are arduous to make), they believe they’ll sell 30,000 stuffed fried taco cones during the fair’s 24-day run.
Also known for her tamales, Frito pie, and fried Jell-O (the last of which earned her a Big Tex Choice Award in 2016), Hauntz’s taco cone exists among the state fair’s usual suspects (turkey legs, corn dogs, chicken fingers) and engineered excess (fried butter, southern fried chicken alfredo balls, and cotton candy burritos). In general, state fair concessions are easy to dismiss as American food culture at its most extreme — some might say grotesque. But that’s a one-dimensional view of food from a fair that, in the case of Texas, dates back to 1886. There’s history and heart in there, too.
Hauntz was born in 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression, as one of seven sisters. Her father James Pinkard worked in a Waco rubber plant and managed the family’s farm. That land and its story are central to Hauntz’s identity. Her great-grandfather, Winkfield Pinkard, escaped slavery and fought and died for the Union Army. After emancipation, Winkfield’s son, Berryman Lee, purchased inexpensive land in Mexia, and over succeeding generations, the farm grew to 218½ acres. Lee and his wife Edna also helped establish Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia, home to one of Texas’s oldest and largest Juneteenth celebrations.
Hauntz remembers her mom Annie fishing in a nearby river and her dad leaning against a big oak tree and shooting squirrels for supper. All nine of the Pinkards would gather around a large wooden table and recite Bible verses before they ate. “We didn’t purchase anything from the grocery store, except for shortening in the winter. Otherwise, we killed our own hogs, and we had beef that daddy processed. I guess that’s why I’m living so long,” says Hauntz. “Our garden was organic. I would pull an onion up from the dirt, peel it, eat it.”
One by one, the Pinkard sisters went off to college to study education — except for Hauntz, who earned a degree in business administration from Prairie View University, now Prairie View A&M University. To help pay for school (and cigarettes), she styled students’ hair, a skill she taught herself by practicing on skinned squirrel tails back on the farm. She also met and married Adolph Hauntz, who came to Prairie View on the GI Bill after serving for three years in the Marines.
The couple settled in Adolph’s hometown of Houston in 1955, and Hauntz started work in the claims department of the International Longshoremen’s Association. She had her daughter Gwen the next year and soon learned to make what would become her signature tamales.
“Adolph loved tamales, and each Saturday, a tamale man would come to town and sell them. I loved to cook anyway, so I figured I would learn to make them,” Hauntz says. She invited a Mexican co-worker to her home one Saturday, and they spent hours simmering pork for the filling and rolling 10 dozen tamales. “I did that two or three times, and I thought there should be a simpler way. I bought fresh ground beef and pork and seasoned the meat. That step shortened the process, and Adolph called them the Rolls-Royce of tamales.”
Heavy seasoning and a generous meat-to-masa ratio are hallmarks of Hauntz’s tamales. She spikes the masa dough with onion salt, granulated garlic, and paprika, and they steam in a bath of the same spices — “never plain water,” she says.
While in Houston, she and Adolph launched hole-the-wall Regent’s Snack Shop, largely to see if people would buy her tamales. With the help of her sisters-in-law, Hauntz ran the shop on top of her office job, and the hand-rolled tamales sold so well they could barely keep up with demand.
In 1966, the Hauntz family moved to Dallas, where the family helped integrate the Spring Hills neighborhood, and Adolph began to establish himself in Dallas’s political circles. Four years later, Hauntz sold a diamond-encrusted watch and gold brooch so she and Adolph could secure a small business loan and open the first of four grocery stores — all of which featured her tamales, chili, and nachos. “Adolph would pick up the groceries [from a distributor], and I would be there at the cash register. The kids helped stock the shelves,” says Hauntz.
In time, Adolph’s civic involvement would include leadership posts on the Dallas City Planning and Zoning Commission and the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce. He ran and lost a campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives and taught community relations classes at the Dallas police academy. “I was the quiet strength,” says Hauntz, who volunteered with the League of Women Voters, entertained, and kept their businesses running. In 1990, she also helped organize fair vendors to help defeat a proposed ban on alcohol in South Dallas.
“Like Michelle and Barack, they were the epitome of a power couple,” says their daughter Gwen. “He was the marketer, and no one could cook like her. They left corporate America together, and they always made decisions as a team.”
They also never discounted the power of a superb tamale. In 1987, with money from the sale of their stores, the Hauntzes opened Ruth’s Tamale House, a postage stamp of a tamale factory and restaurant in South Dallas. They had regular diners and a few wholesale clients, but the business was designed to fuel the State Fair of Texas.
Hauntz has childhood memories of piling onto a bus with friends and family and driving from Mexia to Dallas for the fair’s “Negro Day” — one of two days the fair was open to African-Americans before it officially desegregated in 1961. “I remember how we used to get new shoes to wear to the fair, but we hadn’t broken them in yet. Sometimes I had to pull them off,” says Hauntz, hers eyes lighting up with the memory.
Fond recollections aside, the history of the State Fair of Texas reflects the reign of white supremacy in Dallas and the South as a whole. In 1923, the grounds hosted the initiation of 6,000 Klu Klux Klan members. For the Texas Centennial Exposition at Fair Park in 1936, the state commissioned a complex of 50 Art Deco buildings. That included a first-of-its-kind Hall of Negro Achievement, which was raised after the exposition to make room for a whites-only swimming pool. In the late 1960s, homeowners in the predominantly black neighborhood of Fair Park were displaced to expand the fair’s parking capacity. A report stated: “If the poor Negroes in their shacks cannot be seen, all the guilt feelings … will disappear, or at least be removed from primary consideration.”
The mid-’60s in particular were fraught years for Dallas. “Dallas was held responsible for [President] Kennedy’s assassination. We were the indelible ‘city of hate,’” says Katherine Bynum, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Texas Christian University. “There was a lot of reputation rebuilding in 1960s and 1970s. Leaders wanted to make nice and try not to portray Dallas in certain ways. They’ve done a successful job covering up the history.”
Hauntz lived that history. “You can’t erase it,” she says. “You can’t hang onto the past. That’s what we’ve done. I look at it as if that’s the way life was then. That was the law. You have to move forward.”
Huey “Lil Bob” Nash was the fair’s first black concessionaire. After being rejected for three years, Nash’s smoked bologna sandwiches (also known as South Dallas steak sandwiches) earned his entry in 1964. His three children still run the stand, and that sandwich, topped with relish and mustard, is an essential fair meal.
The Hauntz’s entry into the State Fair of Texas was the culmination of years of community involvement, responsible business ownership, networking, and feeding the who’s who of Dallas. “You have to know somebody to get into the fair, and Adolph knew everybody in Dallas,” she says. Particularly instrumental was Pete Schenkel, a dairy magnate. “Schenkel has one of the shrewdest political minds in Dallas,” wrote D Magazine wrote in 1990. “[And he’s] one of the few true bridges between the black and white power structure.” Schenkel also happened to be one of Adolph’s dearest friends, chairman of the state fair board, and a great admirer of Hauntz’s tamales.
“There was a dinner with Pete, and we brought tamales. The whole city planning commission was there, and everybody went crazy over them,” says Hauntz, who also counted among her fans Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Wilford Jones (aka Crazy Ray), the team’s unofficial mascot.
Schenkel invited Adolph and Hauntz to apply for the fair in 1988, and she has sold hundreds of thousands of tamales at the event ever since. Even when Adolph died suddenly in 1992, Hauntz didn’t think of quitting. The next year, the restaurant closed, and she moved her tamale production from South Dallas to Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que, whose owner John Reaves, was a fellow concessionaire and friend. On top of running her stand in season, she also began to help Reaves in the kitchen year-round.
In 2015, Hauntz’s daughters Gwen, Renee, and Tiffany threw a “retirement” party to celebrate their mom’s nearly three decades of working at the fair. But she has zero interest in retiring. “I am no rocking chair grandma. No, ma’am.”
But she has taken a step back from manual labor and 90°F days. Hauntz incorporated with Reaves and his sons, Brent and Juan, who manage the day-to-day business of the concessions while she maintains creative control of her stands, oversees tamale production in advance of the fair, and makes daily specials for Smokey John’s. (Reaves died in August 2019 and left the business to his sons.)
Five days a week, Hauntz rises well before sunrise to slowly and deliberately make smothered pork chops, turkey and dressing, chicken and dumplings, and peach cobbler. She lifts hotel pans of pot roast from the oven and goes behind other cooks to sprinkle more cheese onto her famous chicken tetrazzini. She is determined to help grow Smokey John’s business by making consistent, delicious home cooking, mentoring the staff, reducing kitchen waste, and devising award-winning state fair dishes. Hauntz says the business arrangement has added 10 years to her life.
“She keeps us going, too,” says Brent. “You can’t complain when your business partner is 85 and strong every day.”
The 2019 fair season has been busy for Hauntz. So far, the BBC has interviewed her, and Kelly Clarkson stopped by for a taco cone. She’s already dreaming up ideas for next year’s fair and hopes to edge ahead of Abel Gonzales, whom her staff refers to as “Fried Jesus,” and his record of Big Tex wins.
It has never occurred to Hauntz to stop making progress. “I’ve always lived by the word ‘strive.’ Start small, think positively, reach out for help, invest wisely, visualize the future, and expand,” she says. It’s a mindset that would benefit the fair she cherishes. Of the 272 concession stands at the fair, just a little more than 10 percent are black-owned businesses, and there have been long, valid complaints that the fair does not funnel enough money back into the community that hosts it. Beyond parking cars in their yards, few South Dallas residents benefit financially from an event that grosses close to $50 million.
South Dallas is also one of the last underdeveloped neighborhoods in Dallas that’s close to downtown. Community organizer Alendra Lyons says that rising property taxes threaten to displace low-income residents. “People make a community, not buildings. What is the city going to do? Are they going to put programs in place so people can stay?” Lyons asks.
The fair is making some changes, if slowly. In 2018, its Big Tex Urban Farm yielded 12,000 pounds of produce that the fair distributed to local organizations and food banks, and it collected an additional 200,000 pounds of canned goods from fairgoers. Most significantly, the fair announced a new management deal with events company Spectra that will eventually usher in year-round use of the park (as opposed to six weeks for fair operations). Fair leadership believes South Dallas will benefit from the arrangement.
“There is an emphasis on creating a park in the early years that will serve as a gathering spot for the surrounding community,” says Mitchell Glieber, president of the State Fair of Texas. “Spectra has the resources and knowledge necessary to aggressively market Fair Park as a premier destination for many types of events. More activities, means more people, which could be more attractive for economic development and increase business for existing South Dallas businesses.”
Lyons is not opposed to development, but she’s skeptical. “The people at Spectra haven’t reached out,” she says. “I’m not sure if they know what they need to be doing. Our issues can be solved. People are just selfish. I will make sure that they are held accountable.”
Hauntz adores the fair: the live country music, the people who recognize her in the crowd and deliver warm hugs, Big Tex (the fair’s 55-foot cowboy statue), the fairgoers who line up at Ruth’s Tamale House, and, especially, the madness of the Texas-Oklahoma State football game on the fair’s second weekend.
And she always showed up — through segregation, while slinging tamales and beer for 12-hour shifts, and for glorious Big Tex wins — and in doing so, her presence and food are their own form form of activism. “With [Ruth’s Tamale House], she’s telling a story about a complex cultural identity. Being there is a political act,” says Jennifer Jensen Wallach, a professor of American-American history and food at the University of North Texas. “African-Americans are co-creators of Southern food culture. She’s saying, ‘I helped create this. My people should be here.’ That’s political.”
To Hauntz, that might seem like a lot to pack into a tamale or taco cone. But it’s certainly not a stretch for an 85 year old, who has lived every day as an example and done the hard work of striving forward. “I consider her a Renaissance woman,” says daughter Renee. “She takes a little of nothing and makes it into something dynamic.”
Caroline Hatchett is a New York City-based food and drinks writer, who also happens to host the world’s only casserole lifestyle podcast. Kathy Tran is a photojournalist based in Dallas.