Each year, hundreds of thousands of the California State Fair faithful line up at the food stands and tricked-out trailers along the Promenade at Cal Expo to binge on fair fare from 125 vendors. It’s an annual ritual during which any concerns about fat and calories are figuratively defenestrated. “Deep fried” and “on a stick” are typically fairgoers’ twin mantras, but the word “novelty” gets the biggest buzz.
Though corn dogs, cinnamon rolls and tacos are traditional favorites, “sideshow” dishes are the attention-grabbers on the national fair circuit. They’re created by concessionaires who spend their off-time in mad-scientist mode, obsessed with research and development. It’s almost a competition or a matter of pride to see who can come up with the most startling dishes, and the public is always game to try them.
At the thousands of state and county fairs across the nation, daring diners sample the likes of alligator tail and fudge-covered scorpions, pulled-pork parfaits and cheeseburgers topped with deep-fried ice cream, hot beef sundaes and deep-fried beer.
Last year’s top novelty at the California State Fair was the Big Rib, 2 pounds of smoked USDA prime beef attached to a 17-inch-long cow rib bone, giving new dimension to the “on a stick” template. The rib will be absent this year, but returning will be “spaghetti and meatballs with marinara sauce” made from ice cream, puréed strawberries, brownies and ground white chocolate, along with the world’s largest ice-cream cone – 20 inches in diameter and stuffed with a gallon of gelato.
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Other dishes at the fair – less intense but still a bit bizarre – will be chicken-waffle tacos, deep-fried Nutella, red velvet funnel cake, pork chops on a stick, the world’s hottest ice cream (made with ghost peppers), chicken breast squeezed between raspberry doughnuts to make “sandwiches,” and caramel-sea salt milkshakes.
The top novelty item this year looks to be the Caveman Turkey Leg, a 2-pound smoked turkey leg wrapped in a pound of bacon. It will be at Bacon Habit, owned and operated by Nathan and Amber Vandewarker of Fire & Ice Concessions.
“We kept selling out of them at last year’s State Fair,” said Amber Vandewarker. “Another best-seller is the Pork-a-Bello Mushroom Kebab. We stuff (white) mushrooms with smoked Gouda cheese, put them on a skewer, wrap the whole thing in bacon and grill it.”
New to the menu is “a fun one we call the Bacon Wrapped Jack Daniel’s,” she said. “We infuse a churro with a shot of Jack Daniel’s bourbon, wrap it in bacon, grill it and serve it with maple syrup and whipped cream for dipping.”
Look too for the Cheesy Bacon Bomb (pepper jack cheese wrapped in dough wrapped in bacon and deep-fried); french fries topped with Gouda cheese and bacon; and bacon bits-covered frozen cheesecake dipped in chocolate and served on a stick.
Obviously, the local bacon craze continues, as shown by Sacramento’s weeklong Bacon Fest each January and the third annual Bacon Fest-sponsored BLT Week, which will be staged at a variety of venues around the city Monday-July 13.
Why are we so porcine-possessed? “How can you not love bacon?” Vandewarker said. “It’s perfectly salted meat candy. You can add it to anything, and it makes it better.”
State Fair marketing director Jennifer Castleberry is quick to point out that not all fair fare will be, shall we say, a dietitian’s nightmare.
“We want people to understand there are a lot of healthful options, such as steamed artichokes, salads, grilled corn, pizza salad and fresh fruit,” she said. “You can indulge while you’re here and stick to that diet at the same time.”
This year, some of the food concessions listed in the official program will have heart icons next to their names to signify more healthful eating alternatives.
On that theme, one of the fair’s most popular vendors is Pepe’s Mariscos, which moves grilled fresh-fish tacos as fast as its kitchen can make them.
“They’re our most popular dish,” said co-owner Erica Quintero. Also on the healthful side are its shrimp-fish cerviche, fruit cups (watermelon, cantaloupe and mango, with jicama and cucumber for crunch) and an ice pop frozen treat made with mango and chili powder. The spinoff Pepe’s Fruit Cart specializes in combinations of chilled fresh fruits and from-scratch aguas frescas.
The concessions are really a giant food court surrounded by rides and exhibits, and offer an array of choices in a spectrum of ethnic categories – Italian, Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, French, Mexican, German and American, which includes soul food, barbecue and Southern.
“People like to try something they might not be able to get every day,” Castleberry said. “The State Fair brings together different cultures and gives you the chance to have it all in one place.”
That leads to a third mantra that seems to dominate the fair’s culinary scene: “One of each, please.”