When it comes to the South Carolina State Fair, the magic is in the twirl.
No, I’m not referring to the twirl that comes as you are spun at high speeds on rides like the Himalaya or the Ring of Fire. And I don’t mean the twirl of the trapeze performers in the circus that’s the entertainment centerpiece this year.
The twirl I’m referring to happens inside the Daley’s Dogs corn dog trailers set up along the main concessions corridor in the fairgrounds. It’s the twirl that comes when workers plunge hand-skewered wienies into tubs of meticulously cultivated batter — its recipe honed and perfected over the course of nearly six decades — and spin the sticks between their fingers, lathering the franks in a thick coating of the yellowish concoction, a mix of cornmeal, flour, sugar and water. Once thoroughly covered, the combination is submerged in a vat of hot peanut oil, and in a little more than three minutes a State Fair mainstay — a Daley’s Dogs corn dog — is born.
I learned a bit about the twirl, and other long-held corn dog secrets, on Oct. 9, the opening day of this year’s South Carolina State Fair. A while back, a friend of mine, noticing that I’ve written several day-in-the-life pieces on various high-minded topics — professional wrestling, flea markets, haunted houses, minor league baseball, etc. — put me onto the idea of working a shift in one of the Daley’s stands at the State Fair (they have three; two for corn dogs and one for funnel cakes). It sounded reasonable enough, so I called up Daley’s owner and Forest Acres resident Cliff Daley, and he seemed amenable to the idea.
“Yeah, come on,” he said, good naturedly. “We’ll put you to work. I’ll have a hat and a shirt for you.”
And so, I ventured out to the fairgrounds on a Wednesday morning, about an hour before the gates opened for the 150th version of the fair. I tracked down Cliff, who was dashing between the three Daley’s trailers, chatting up workers and making final preparations. Water lines were checked, coolers were stuffed with ice and sodas, DHEC officials were popping in to make perfunctory pre-fair inspections, and refrigerators in the stands were stuffed full of wienies-on-a-stick, just waiting to be battered and fried.
Cliff tossed me one of the customary red Daley’s Dog’s shirts and a ball cap emblazoned with a cartoon corn dog and, as he made his rounds and final preparations, told me a bit about the business.
His late father started Daley’s Dogs in 1962. While Cliff and his cousins used to travel to different events to help his dad with the stand, as Cliff grew older, he didn’t think he’d go into slinging corn dogs full-time. He got a degree in business administration from the University of South Carolina, and was later a division manager with a tape manufacturing company. But when his father died, he decided to get serious about the family business.
“I just kept building this business, getting new contracts, investing in some new equipment,” Daley says. “I just decided to go for it. It’s something I truly have a passion for and enjoy. There’s something about the fair and the environment that gets in your blood and is just energizing.”
Daley’s Dogs is now a full-time gig for Daley and his wife, Kim. They work fairs, festivals and catering gigs throughout the year. For instance, their previous stop before the South Carolina State Fair was the North Georgia State Fair, and their next post will be at the Coastal Carolina Fair in Ladson.
One thing I noticed almost immediately about Daley, a solidly built man with a prominent mustache and just a hint of a mischievous twinkle in his eye, is that he talks about corn dogs the same way a high-end jeweler might talk about diamonds: Lovingly, and with reverence.
“We hand-dip all ours, we stick our own wienies,” Daley says. “Everything we do is select. We make our own mix. We use flour, we use corn meal, we use sugar. We don’t buy pre-mix. A lot of others usually do. A lot of others buy dogs that are already stuck. We select our dogs and stick them ourselves. All our ingredients are the best. We use Gold Medal self-rising flour. It is not the cheapest, but it is the best whether you are cooking cakes or anything else.”
If you’re wondering what kind of hot dog wienies Daley’s uses, well, tough luck. I asked, but Daley said that info is “proprietary.” Some things stay classified in the corn dog game, apparently.
The Daleys’ operation at the South Carolina State Fair is a family enterprise, with various cousins, nephews, siblings and in-laws pitching in to keep things humming. While I’ve got a little experience slinging grease — I worked at McDonald’s in high school and college — I was a corn dog neophyte. So, for my shift at Daley’s, Cliff paired me with his brother-in-law, Eric Smith.
Simply put: Smith is the LeBron James of corn dog cooking. The Rembrandt of the deep fryer. The Beethoven of batter. He’s been helping out at Daley’s Dogs for three decades.
“I believe I’ve probably cooked more than a million corn dogs,” he tells me, with a little matter-of-fact shrug.
He waxes poetic about the “chemistry” of corn dog making, mixes five-gallon buckets of batter in a flash, and can watch over two dozen corn dogs in a deep fryer, without a timer, and every one of them comes out in the perfect, golden brown hue.
Smith gave me a crash course in corn dog making, teaching me how to twirl them into the batter, and continue twirling them as you pull them up out of the batter before plunging them into the hot oil. Over the course of several hours I became modestly proficient at it, and, most importantly, managed to not burn down the concession stand.
One thing that stood out during my time in the wagon was the proliferation of customers, from essentially the moment the fair gates opened. For some, rushing in on opening day for a Daley’s corn dog was almost like a reflex.
“I’m retired and I just couldn’t wait to get out here,” Columbia’s Jeff Craig tells me, about 10 minutes after the fair opened. “As soon as I got in here I came straight here and got in line. … I love the different flavors they do. I’ve known Cliff back to public school days, back to Dreher High School.”
But the fervor wasn’t only from folks who’d known Cliff since the schoolyard. Christina Ramirez was in Columbia on business from Kansas City, and she marveled over her first taste of one of Daley’s confections.
“I love corn dogs, but I’ve only had ones from a chain kind of place,” she says. “This is delicious. It has a different flavor to it. It’s fluffy, but it’s cooked thoroughly. It’s crispy, but it’s done just enough to where the inside is still soft. It’s the best.”
It’s the type of snap review that can only come when a recipe and process has been sharpened for decades, and when the hands that carry out that process — a greenhorn reporter notwithstanding — have twirled untold corn dogs in years gone by.
“It’s a pleasure to be here,” Daley tells me. “To be a vendor at the South Carolina State Fair is truly a privilege.”
For at least one afternoon in a corn dog stand, the privilege was mine.
What: South Carolina State Fair
Where: South Carolina State Fairgrounds, 1200 Rosewood Dr.
When: Through Oct. 20
Price: $10 (various discounts and special offers available)
More: 803-799-3387, scstatefair.org