When I was in high school, my younger brother and I had a mutual friend that we would sometimes hang out with together. Our friend, who I’ll call Harry Teflon for the sake of anonymity (and because he had bushy hair at the time and this is a food blog, thus the Teflon), was two years behind me in school and two years ahead of my brother. Harry and I were high school friends, but my brother got to know him first through our church youth group and a few of the usual misadventures usually associated with church youth groups—lock-ins (or co-ed chaste slumber parties hosted in the church basement), Lenten suppers cooked and served by the group for the handful of people who actually show up to church on Wednesday nights during Lent, and the occasional youth group field trip out of town to places like Adventureland—an amusement park outside of Des Moines.
It was at Adventureland that we were first introduced to the funnel cake. None of us had ever heard of funnel cakes before we arrived to Adventureland, one June day in the mid-80s. But funnel cakes were to be had all over the park. You couldn’t escape them—they were advertised everywhere you went, in those large balloon-y, serif-y fonts filled in with bright colors—pink, turquoise, red, yellow—shouting at you like a carnival barker from the side of a food trailer—“FUNNEL CAKES.” You could almost hear the echo of “get your funnel cakes here” from every corner.
With that kind of enticement, who can refuse? So, of course we had to try this funnel cake concoction. Funnel cakes, for the uninitiated, are basically fried dough topped with copious powdered sugar and sometimes some other topping (strawberry sauce, chocolate sauce), but the reason they’re called “funnel” cakes is that the batter gets poured into a vat of hot oil from a funnel that is swirled around while the batter drops, thus producing a jumble that resembles a knot that would be virtually untangle-able if it were anything other than fried dough. So, as opposed to a donut or just a dough ball, each of which have their own distinct shapes, the funnel cake does as well, but is distinct in that it is just a big ol’ mess o’ dough.
So somewhere in between rides on a rickety old wooden roller coaster that had probably been in operation since the prohibition era and getting completely soaked on the log ride and walking around the park shivering for the remainder of the day, Harry, my brother and I became initiated in the funnel cake, which at the time, mostly served just to go down as one of the legendary in-jokes of the lexicon of our little triad, like the Dorothy Lynch Incident, where I accidentally sprayed Harry with bright orange poppy seed salad dressing all over his favorite shirt when I shook a bottle up in preparation for one of those Lenten spaghetti suppers and didn’t realized the cap wasn’t entirely screwed on the bottle. Ooops! Only the funnel cake became synonymous with trashy fair food that the kind of thing we imagined Pinto people (another in-joke for ‘people who still drove Ford Pintos in 1985) would eat.
That was until the following summer, between my freshman and sophomore years of college, when I was home for the summer. My brother and I spent a lot of time with Harry that summer doing those things silly things that kids in their late teens do because they’re too young to go to bars (that is despite the fact that I’d spent much of my freshman year of college illegally going to bars). Harry would call us up and suggest some sort of crazy teenage activity—like hanging out in the grocery story parking lot eating bon-bons at 10 pm or parking his car on the roof of a downtown parking garage and blasting New Order and The Smiths from the speakers and creating our own mini-rave dance party. My brother and I would also sometimes just pop over to Harry’s house uninvited to see if he was around. One night on a long walk through the hills of Dubuque, we stopped at his house, but he wasn’t home. His parents were home watching a video and invited us in for ice cream and a little “Romancing the Stone.” I’ll never forget how mortifying it was to be watching that movie with a friend’s 50-something parents during the scene where Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner fall down a waterfall only to have Douglas faceplant in Turner’s crotch when they hit bottom. V. uncomfortable.
One day while shopping at the Eagle grocery store, I happened to be walking through the baking goods aisle when lo and behold what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a plastic squeeze jar of Funnel Cake mix! Dried mix in a clear plastic jar like those ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles you have a restaurants. Just add water, shake well, squeeze into hot oil, fry, cover with powdered sugar and you’ve made your own funnel cakes. I called Harry as soon as I got home.
In addition to owning a copy of “Romancing the Stone” on VHS, Harry’s parents were also in possession of a Fry Daddy electric frying machine. So the three musketeers planned an afternoon of funnel cakery at Harry’s house while his parents were at work—we would make funnel cakes and watch “Purple Rain,” because my brother and I hadn’t seen it yet.
Harry picked up my brother and I and we drove to the Eagle, making a bee-line straight for the baking aisle. We snapped up the dough mix, some toppings and drove to Harry’s house. I’d never really used a fry-o-later type machine before and the thought of frothy, hot oil and the prospect of a potential disfiguring burn scared the crap out of me and my brother so we thought we’d let Harry man the Fry Daddy since his family sometimes made their own French fries. Harry plugged in the Fry Daddy and while we waited for it to heat up, we added the suggested amount of water to the squeeze bottle and took turns shaking up the dried powder, trying to get it well-mixed and hoping to avoid a lumpy glop.
Our own funnel cakes were, not surprisingly, less successful than those served at Adventureland. As I recall it, our first couple of attempts were poorly executed because we were over anxious to get some cakes in our bellies and so we poured the dough into the oil too early before it had properly heated up—so something that should have taken no more than 5 minutes to cook took more like 25 and we were all standing around peering into the Fry Daddy living the old “watched pot never boils” adage in real-time. Eventually we got the hang of the frying thing, but not before there was powdered sugar and dough blobs and tiny oil spray splatters all over the kitchen and ourselves and each of us had done numerous shots of Ready Whip out of the can, since we’d decided we needed to really soup up our funnel cakes with all sorts of toppings, including strawberries and canned cream. I’m not sure how, but each of us ended up with dough blobs on our clothing and I think in our hair. Maybe we had a bit of a food fight—I can’t quite remember, but I do remember scratching dried dough off my shirt while Prince was singing to Apollonia.
I haven’t had a funnel cake since then, and I don’t know that I will, but whenever I think of Harry Teflon, funnel cakes are never far behind in my mind.