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The Origins of Two American Fried Dough Classics: Funnel Cakes and Elephant Ears

Fried dough is a delicious treat we usually associate with county fairs and the like since this is where we often consume fried dough treats such as funnel cakes and elephant ears. So, it may surprise you to learn that fried cakes have been around for many thousands of years – perhaps almost as long as tools which were originally used to make them.

According to some sources, fried cakes were first consumed in ancient China and Egypt as long ago as 8,000 to 5,500 BC after the inventions of pottery and the stone grinder allowed for primitive forms of frying and the grinding of grain.

The Roman scriblita, described in 2nd Century BC texts, is thought to be a more recent precursor of fried dough cakes and fritters in particular. This food was made by spooning lumps of sourdough-leavened dough into hot fat and allowing it to stream into random shapes.

Fast-forward a few thousand years to colonial America to see the invention of funnel cakes, one of the first North American fried foods, which is associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch, German immigrants who came to Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Pennsylvania Dutch called the first funnel cakes drechter kuche, and the name “funnel” later came from the technique used to make the cakes, in which the pancake-like batter is poured into hot oil through a funnel.

Not to be confused with funnel cakes, elephant ears also originated in America. Inspired by the fry bread of Native Americans, elephant ears get their name from their big, “ear”-like shape. Fry bread was invented by the Navajo tribe of the southwestern United States in 1864 using the flour, sugar, lard, and salt given to them by the U.S. government. The end-result is a cake that is flatter and smoother compared to funnel cakes’ fluffy, lumpy texture.

Once cooked, both funnel cakes and elephant ears are dressed up in sweet toppings such as powdered sugar and fruit toppings. Today, both are midway classics that you can make yourself using Gold Medal Products equipment and mixes. And now that you’re informed about the unique histories of these American fried foods, you can have some interesting information to share with customers!