There many American food
s that is quite closely associated with American culture
. Foods like apple pie
and cracker jacks
tend to evoke a feeling of home to most Americans. Few foods have a broader appeal to Americans than Funnel Cake. Funnel cakes remind people of summer
s, the beach
, and most of all, home. Brought over with the Europeans, the dish is widely eaten and has become a part of the Native American
and Pennsylvania Dutch
Two different types of deep-fried dough exist today. The first, now known simply as “fry bread
” is probably related to Bannock
, breads eaten by Scottish
fir traders living in Canada
. If one takes Bannock and deep fry it, you have fry bread. (1, 1:307). It has become a common food in many Native American communities such as the Navajo
The second type uses a batter instead of dough. It has been suggested that this originally came from the Portuguese. Their recipe for Malasades (3) (milk, sugar, eggs, flour and an agent to make the product rise) and the procedure for dipping the batter in oil is similar to that of funnel cake, a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch food.
Traditional Portuguese Malasades resemble doughnuts,
and were probably the predecessor to funnel cakes.
The Pennsylvania Dutch call the dish “funnel cake” after the fact that they pour the dough into hot fat (or oil) using a modified funnel. Metal pitchers are often used to pour funnel cake
batter into oil for fat where it is cooked.
Today, batter cooked in fat is served throughout North America. In Canada, it is commonly referred to as "beaver tails" or "elephant ears" while the Mexicans call it Churro.
Beignets, a traditional dish from New Orleans, is made with a similar recipe to funnel cake. They are rectangular, and are served to this day.
To many, funnel cakes have come to represent American cuisine
. But what exactly is American cuisine? Gabaccia asserts that after the American revolution, “The United States had become an independent nation without creating a national cuisine that matched its sense of uniqueness.” (4, 125).
A great deal of time and effort was expended trying to create a uniform diet for America. Most of that effort was focused on the poor and the recent immigrant communities (often an overlapping group). In the end, American cooking was recognized to be as diverse as its citizens. Traditional foods (such as fry dough and funnel cake) were often a common denominator in a sea of very diverse cuisines being consumed in America.
Like most carnival / festival food items, funnel cake is deep fried in fat. This is “an echo of the times when fats were in shorter supply and were reserved for special occasions.” (OCF, 324). It is relatively easy to prepare and it’s sweet
tasting, perfect for a fair. People attending are not interested in eating healthy, so they are willing to indulge. Since it is often eaten at these kind of events, funnel cake has become associated with summer.
Connection to Amish & Native Americans
Fry bread has become associated with the Native Americans in many parts of the country, especially in the southwest. It has become so popular at Native American gatherings that it has been seen as a primary contributor to obesity
in that group. (1, 1:76) So called “Navajo
” or “Indian
” tacos can be made by replacing the corn tortilla in a traditional taco with a piece of fry bread which is not nearly as healthy. It has become a relatively popular dish in Native American cooking, and the health of many has deteriorated as a result.
The Amish are associated with funnel cake, especially in the Mid-Atlantic region. It is something that they can easily make without electricity that people enjoy to eat. They use it as a source of money, and they have built a great deal of culture around it. Additionally, funnel cake is an item that must be prepared immediately before serving. This has prevented it from being mass-marketed and has kept it strictly as a carnival food.
Money has been a driving factor behind the survival of the funnel cake. Since the creation requires a live staff, and since people are often looser with their money while attending carnivals and fairs, there is a great deal of money to be made preparing fried dough and funnel cake. Additionally, for anything rare or unusual, it is not uncommon for the cost to be high.
NPR interviewed Frank Wilmer, the self proclaimed ‘Funnel Cake King’ on August 3, 2003. He discussed his career creating funnel cakes for over thirty years. He tells that in the three busy months he made enough to live on. He talked about how he made $1700 in a single day in 1972, which roughly translates to $7264 in today’s dollars.
As was stated before, there is a distinction between the dough-based fry dough and the batter-based funnel cake. The base recipe for all types is fairly similar across a large number of recipes. The core ingredients are sugar, milk, butter, flour, yeast. If this is to be funnel cake, eggs are also added. Some recipes call for additional ingredients such as vanilla
extract (5). One recipe put a French spin on the dish with the addition of 3 tablespoons of wine
Funnel cakes and fry dough can be deep fried in oil or lard. The frying temperature is very important. Too hot and the outside of the dish becomes tough. If the temperature is too low, the cake can be greasy and pale. Frying works because the outside of the funnel cake/fry dough cooks instantly forming a seal. This doesn't allow oil/fat to get into the cake. (7, 324) Funnel cakes are often served topped with powdered sugar. They can also be served with maple syrup or fruit toppings.
Several companies currently sell “funnel cake kits” so that one can make their own funnel cakes at home. Kitchen Kapers sells a kit, complete with pitcher (to pour the dough), a frying ring to be filled with oil or fat, a powdered sugar shaker, and cooking tongs to be used to get the funnel cake from out of the hot oil. (8) Others, such as Gold Metal Products, sell equipment for the commercial creation and sale of funnel cakes. (9)
As a carnival food, funnel cake and fry bread definitely hit the spot. They’re warm, and perfect for a cool summer night. Whether served with powdered sugar, or topped with a fruit compote, they’re definitely a summer treat that will be around for many years to come.
It has been said that the United States is the most overweight civilization in history. Fast foods and processed fats contribute to this to a great extent. Most people eat funnel cake and fry bread only on rare occasions, and it is probably good that they don’t eat it more often.
(1) Katz, Solomon & Weaver, William. Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. Thomson Gale, 2003
(4) Gabaccia, Donna, We Are What We Eat, Harvard University Press, 1998
(7) Davidson, Alan, Oxford Companion to Food, Oxford University Press, 1999.