It’s time for fair play once again as hundreds of thousands of the faithful from around the state will transform Cal Expo into a small city during the 162nd California State Fair, running July 10 through July 26.
Sure, many of them will come to see comic Paul Rodriguez and singer-dancer Ashanti, watch the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships, experience virtual reality at the Tech Trek exhibit or wager on thoroughbred horse racing.
But sooner or later nearly all of them will end up indulging in the annual 10-napkin ritual of “deep-fried” and “on a stick.” For that, they will gladly stand in lines along the Promenade, the giant food court of American and ethnic fare from more than 125 concessionaires. Those vendors trailer their mobile “restaurants” around the country on the fair circuit, spending their off-months creating new dishes to shock and delight.
Why does the food part of the fair get so much attention?
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“It’s the sense of urgency, of ‘Get it now or it’s gone,’” said Shauna Parrish, who’s in her 15th year as the fair’s concessions manger. “If the food is at the mall, you know you can go any day of the year. But there are only 17 days when you can go to the fair and get the food, and then it goes away. Some people wait all year for their favorite foods to return.”
What about fair fare’s notorious calorie and fat contents? “Eating recklessly once a year can’t hurt,” Parrish said with a laugh. “People are going to walk to all the events and attractions, and the weight will come right off.”
Of course, not all fair dishes are a dietitian’s nightmare. As a consumer guide, some of the concessions listed in the official program have heart icons next to their names. “The hearts signify more healthful eating alternatives, like fruits and vegetables,” Parrish said.
This year’s State Fair menu is not as wild as in recent years past. It lacks the big-buzz sideshow dishes such as Dominick Palmieri’s Big Rib, 2 pounds of smoked prime beef attached to a 17-inch-long cow rib bone. “Chicken” Charlie Boghosian will be pushing his deep-fried Twinkies elsewhere, and “Jungle George” Sandefur won’t be around to sell deep-fried scorpions and beetle maggot-melt sandwiches.
Still, making up for those delicacies will be a variety of lip-smacking novelties, such as a trio of award winners from Cardinali’s Family Concessions. Its deep-fried wood-fired pastrami pizza was the first-place winner in the Alameda County Fair’s Snackdown competition in June.
“We deep-fry the crust for crispness, then build the pizza on top of it,” explained Tony Cardinali. “We put on lean pastrami, mozzarella, sauerkraut and red onions. Then we then put it in the wood-fired oven for smokiness, and top it with mustard sauce. One judge described it as ‘a Reuben sandwich hit by a steamroller.’”
Cardinali will also have deep-fried, hand-blowtorched caramelized bananas Foster with butter-rum-caramel and marshmallow sauces, and “the world’s sourest ice cream.”
Amber and Nathan Vanderwarker’s porcine-centric Bacon Habit setup also has something new. “Buttery corn on the cob is such a fair staple,” Amber Vanderwarker said, “but we wrap it in four pieces of hickory-smoked bacon and crisp it up on the grill.”
Look for the return of their Caveman Turkey Leg, a 2-pound smoked drumstick wrapped in a pound of bacon. If that’s too much to handle, the Pork-a-Bello Mushroom Kebab is a skewer of eight white mushrooms stuffed with smoked Gouda cheese, wrapped in bacon and grilled.
Also back are Bacon Wrapped Jack Daniel’s (a bourbon-infused, pork-laden churro) and the Cheesy Bacon Bomb (pepper jack cheese wrapped in biscuit dough wrapped in bacon and deep-fried). Bacon Habit’s bacon-wrapped garlic-herbs-marinated chicken on a stick was among the “Fairest of the Fair” at last year’s Oklahoma State Fair.
A newcomer to the State Fair is Harrison Swift and his tiki hut, Drink a Fruit From a Fruit. “We core personal-size watermelons and whole pineapples, blend the fruit with ice and pour it back into the fruit shells,” he explained. “For the (husk-on) Costa Rican coconuts, we chop off the top, make a hole in the top and stick in a straw. They even come with little umbrellas.”
The snacks are sweeter at Sweet Cheeks, which has “everything that’s fun to eat,” said Jacqueline Bradbur. “Our newest are deep-fried peanut butter-and-jelly cheesecake with bubblegum frosting, and deep-fried bacon-wrapped peanut butter cups,” she said. “There is no calorie-counting at the fair, so you can eat what you like.”
Anne Adair of El Dorado Hills returns with her Cloud 9 concession for the fourth year, selling beignets topped with vanilla ice cream, fruit and Nutella. “Beignets are still a new experience for fairgoers,” she said, “but they’re catching on.”
The Cotton sisters – Lynn, Doris and Detra – have brought Minnie’s Cornbread House to the State Fair for 40 years, moving a line of Southern dishes such as fried snapper and catfish, greens and candied yams, red beans ’n’ rice, cornbread and hushpuppies.
Pepe’s Marisco is a refuge from the deep-fried template, with grilled talapia tacos, shrimp and octopus cocktails, and shrimp ceviche tostadas. “The fish tacos are our most popular dish,” said Erica Quintero. And Pepe’s Fruit Cart spinoff offers combinations of chilled fresh fruits and seasonings to dust on them.
Fair-food trends come and go, but the corn dog has been around forever and is consistently the fair’s No. 1 best-seller. The Corn Dog King is undoubtedly the appropriately named Milo Franks, operating four stands at the State Fair and sponsoring the annual corn dog-eating contest.
“This year we have a whole new concept for the batter,” Franks said from his home in Pilot Hill. “It uses less cornmeal and is lighter, sweeter and more cakelike. I worked many hours developing it. After 46 years of making corn dogs, I kind of know what I’m doing.”
Price-wise, what can fairgoers expect to find at this year’s cornucopia?
“Everybody has worked to keep the costs the same as last year, though there may be increases for meat- and dairy-based items because the vendors have to pay more for them,” said concessions coordinator Parrish.
Which led to the question: What are her fair favorites?
“I love Milo’s corn dogs, and I go to Grinders for their healthful sandwiches,” she said. “But I can’t resist cotton candy.”
California State Fair
- Where: 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento
- When: July 10-July 26
- Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. The Midway Carnival will operate 2-11 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesdays; 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays.
- Cost: $12 general, $10 ages 62-plus ($8 on Fridays before 8 p.m.), $8 children 5-12, free for children 4 and younger. Parking is $10 cars, $5 motorcycles.
- Information: www.castatefair.org (including dollars-off promotional days)
Corn dog mania
The corn dog is the most popular food item at the California State Fair. How many can you knock back in a given amount of time?
Test your limits at the state fair’s corn dog-eating contest, sponsored by Milo’s Corn Dogs.
The throwdown is July 17 (1 p.m. preliminaries) and July 18 (6 p.m. finals) on the Promenade Stage. The entry fee is $10 in advance, which includes admission to the fair, and $20 the day of, which does not include admission to the fair. Prize money goes like this: $2,500 to the first-place winner; $2,000 for second; $1,000 for third; $500 for fourth; $100 for fifth. Details, entry forms and rules are at www.castatefair.org; click on “Participate,” then “Competitions.”