Stop by most every food booth at a Night in Old San Antonio and you can get a serving of family history alongside your favorite snack.
Take Richard and Joy Slavin for example. Their family found their way to Frontier Town in the early 1970s when they worked at the chili con queso booth. After a few years, chili con queso moved out of the neighborhood, but the Slavins decided to stay on their NIOSA block. They found themselves working at the then-new Cowboy Klopse booth, where they have volunteered ever since.
Their daughter, Allison Schmidt, and her husband, Smitty Schmidt, are now chairing the booth, and you’ll find the next generation of the family, the Schmidts’ twin daughters, Jessica and Julie, joining in the fun. Allison’s brother, Rick Slavin, also pitches in where needed.
For those not familiar with the NIOSA favorite, Cowboy Klopse is the name of a meatball that’s been coated in a jalapeno batter before being deep-fried to a dark golden perfection.
According to Allison, the recipe was created by a woman named Jane Fricke, who ran the booth for a year before deciding she’d had enough. So, she left behind her recipe, which draws thousands of hungry customers over the course of the celebration. One bite will convince you why.
Throughout the duration of NISOA, the booth expects to sell just shy of 3,000 servings, Smitty says.
He’s the one who showed me how to fry up these treats. The recipe begins with a Golden Dipt Batter mix with diced jalapeños stirred in. Then you add the meatballs and get them thoroughly coated. Using a pair of kitchen tongs, you grab a meatball out of the bowl and make sure it has a thick coating of batter around it before dropping it into a fry vat and letting the hot oil do its magic. About halfway through the frying process, you shake the balls loose from the bottom of the fry basket, so they can float to the top and finish cooking.
It’s not a complicated process, but like anything you cook, the procedure has to be followed fairly closely — and you have to do it without giving yourself a grease burn. It took no time to learn how to fry them up right, but it did take me a few baskets before I got the process right. On my very first try, I managed to get the Klopse stuck in the corner of the fry basket, so I had to a clean pair of tongs to loosen it. It took a while to develop the right method of shaking the balls loose while they cooked. And I managed to splash myself with oil once. Thankfully, it wasn’t bad.
I picked up additional technique from my fellow fryers, some of whom have worked the booth for anywhere from five to 10 years. They made me feel like an old pro in no time. One of the volunteers, Bibi Nuñez, has been making klopse since 1984. He loves the work and he loves the protection that the booth offers from the sometimes overwhelming NIOSA crowds. “It’s fun being behind here, watching the people” he says. I’ve thought the same many times.
The crew fell into their jobs as if they had been frying up meatballs last week, not last year. “Everybody really knows what they’re doing,” Allison says. “It’s really in good hands.”
They also began to catch up with each, swapping stories about work, about volunteering for NIOSA and the San Antonio Conservation Society, the rain rock that was supposed to ward off the thunderstorms that had been forecast, you name it. Smitty told me about Caritas Ranch BBQ, which he used to make and market. Allison talked about sweating through a hot NIOSA when she was pregnant with her twin girls. And Jessica talked about heading off to Alpine with her sister this fall for college.
In the 15 years or so that I’ve worked at NIOSA, helping out at booths as diverse as Bongo-K-bobs, fried green tomatoes, Yak-i-tori, Shypoke Eggs and bean tacos as well as the no-longer-offered Maria’s tortillas and calf fries, I can’t recall a booth where the workers loved their product quite as much as the team at Cowboy Klopse. Yes, all of the booths took deep pride in their work, but these workers delighted in it, and that made it even more fun than usual.
Of course, you can’t make it through a shift of working at the Klopse booth without hearing a few jokes about the hot balls that they’re serving up to hungry customers. After all, as Allison Schmidt says, “They’re anatomically correct. We sell them two at a time.”
A Night in Old San Antonio, a benefit for the San Antonio Conservation Society, continues through Friday. For more information, click here.