The Elephant Ear Story

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How We got Started

Elephant ears (hereinafter "ears") were a hot item at fairs beginning in the early 1980's. They are basically a fried bread sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, not too much different from Indian Fry Bread made in the Southwest. In the 1980's the "ears" bread dough was made from "scratch," using a bread dough mix containing yeast. Today most "ears" sellers use a shortcut method of buying already-formed frozen small loaves of bread dough originally created for restaurants so that the cooks could defrost the loaves and bake them as needed. That's essentially what we now do, defrosting the loaves in a micro-wave, cutting them in half, hand forming the halves into a ball and then flattening them to about 1/2 inch thick lumps that are fed into powered roller that produces a disk about 10 inches in diameter and about 1/8 inch thick. The disks are not perfectly round so when fried about 2-3 minutes in 400-degree vegetable oil they emerge in various shapes not unlike an elephant's real ear, hence the name.
Our Decatur Breakfast Club began making these at the first Decatur Celebration, a large free street fair, in 1985, using a packaged mix then on the market that required adding warm water, mixing, setting aside to rise, then kneading in flour until small portions could be flattened with a rolling pin on a flour-covered board. We did this in Decatur's First Presbyterian Church's kitchen, then walked with pans laden with the disks about two blocks to where the Celebration committee had built eight- foot square plywood "booths" without roofs. There we fried "ears" in electric skillet fry pans, sprinkled pre-mixed sugar and cinnamon on them after allowing the excess oil to drip off a few seconds. Obviously the production per man-hour was very low and rain was a constant threat, so after a few years we constructed an enclosed frame trailer on an old rubber-tired trailer frame and installed a used gas-fired fryer, a small micro-wave, a electric powered roller and a used refrigerator for the purchased frozen loaves then available. Production rate increased, but we then bought a large old iron kettle and built a cut-off barrel with multiple-gas-burners to support the kettle that could cook up to seven "ears" at a time to supplement the inside fryer that could cook only two at a time. The outdoor kettle also became a major marketing attraction for customers and we were able to net $5500 at one three-day Celebration with a price of only $1.50 per ear. For comparison, since 2003 we charged $3.00 at the event to cover the large share of the gross income taken by the event's organizers and the state sales tax. Bad weather, either too hot, too cold, or too wet, can drastically affect our net profit, which funds our service projects throughout the year.

Many early problems cropped up. The kettle was slow to heat the oil; the inside fryer frequently broke down during busy times; the trailer roof leaked; the micro-wave occasionally experienced a power failure; and the city health department wanted more screens and better hand-cleaning procedures. So in about 1992 the club voted to design and have built a customized durable trailer with two built-in higher-capacity gas-fired fryers with an outside drain, an efficient stainless steel work space, screened windows, exhaust fan, computerized moving electronic advertising sign, etc. that we still use today. The trailer cost about $20,000 and by limiting our local donations to a minimum, the club burned the mortgage in 1996. The most efficient man-power team is four, but during busy and hot-weather times, a fifth person can provide relief and go after supplies.

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This site was last updated 11/21/07