As a child, I was not allowed to eat junk. Once a day after dinner I was given dessert, in the form of quality ice cream or good chocolate, but run of the mill candy and fried foods were never allowed in my house and completely out of my reach until I was old enough to buy them myself.
For the most part, that approach to child-rearing worked. I grew up with a love of vegetables, a disdain for chewing gum (which remains to this day), and an aversion to fast food. But there was a certain period of my life, around the age of 13, when I first had an allowance significant enough to actually be spent, that I gained a love for some of that nasty stuff my mother had been trying to keep from me.
My downfall was the state fair. Fried dough and hot dogs were only the beginning. It seemed as though there was an unspoken competition going on to see who could think up the nastiest idea that actually tasted good. There is a perversity to this notion that appealed to me then, and appeals to me still. I can't help myself.
Street fairs and the state fair offer a whole genre of food that is to be found nowhere else. The best and most disgusting examples of the genre involve deep-frying things that were never intended to be fried. I'm not sure what it is about fairs that bring out the scientist in these culinary entrepreneurs, but the results should be considered the absolute forefront of eating in America. Well, maybe not. But fairs do represent true culinary Americana in a way that no other venues do.
Take the corn dog. Invented in 1942 for the Texas State Fair, the corn dog is the epitome of a ridiculous idea that has that greasy seductive appeal. Cotton candy dates back to the late 1800s, and is another example of good old-fashioned American ingenuity creating something that is fabulously fanciful and disgusting. Ever since the invention of these treats, folks have been trying to come across some other nasty idea that will become the next national food icon.
It takes dedication and a strong stomach to be a fair food devotee, but it is worth the sacrifice. The delights I have come across in my years of attending fairs include:
Deep-fried Oreos: Is there any food in the world as versatile as the Oreo? As if it weren't enough that you can use Oreos as a garnish, a base for pie crust, and an integral ingredient in milk shakes and ice cream, we now discover that you can dip them in batter and fry them to great effect. The result is kind of like a rich doughnut. They are then dusted with powdered sugar, which melts into the hot grease, forming a glaze. This is pure food pornography.
The mozzarepa: A cornmeal pancake filled with mozzarella cheese and grilled on a hotplate. South America meets Italy in a seedy bar and they produce this bastard child. Mmmmm ...
Deep-fried candy bars: Generally, you get your choice of Snickers or 3 Musketeers dipped in batter, deep-fried and coated with powdered sugar. I took a bite of one of these things three years ago and my teeth still hurt. It was the only time in my life that I have experienced sweetness so extreme that it caused physical pain.
Deep-fried Twinkies: Just like the Oreos, but more cakey and less rich. Other variations include deep-fried MoonPies and Ho Hos. In some areas they are dipped in a berry sauce after frying instead of dusted with sugar.
Frozen bananas: Frozen and dipped in chocolate, this treat is downright healthy for fair food, making it suspect in my book.
Of course, this list barely scratches the surface, and doesn't even get into the Philly cheesesteaks, gyros, falafels, barbecue, crab cake sandwiches and frozen lemonade. (Maybe I am imagining it, but I swear that once I had some frozen lemonade at a fair that was actually refreshing and tasted good. Ever since then, I have been forking over my $5, hoping to re-create that experience. Usually, I get a cup full of sugar blended with ice, water and yellow food coloring. Also, when is someone going to start putting vodka in this stuff?)
But my interest lies more with the freak show aspect of fair food. The lure of the fair for me is the opportunity to go out in search of the bizarre, and the possibility of breaking through to a new frontier in bad taste. Last year, I heard rumors about deep-fried banana pudding and deep-fried cheeseburgers at the state fair. Who knows what they'll fry next?
My allowance and I will be there to find out.
A Fair Selection
Eating at fairs and festivals is always half the fun. Here are ones, small and large, where you might find something deliciously nasty to eat:
Atlanta Pride FestivalPiedmont Park, June 23-25
38th annual Yellow Daisy Festival, Stone Mountain Park, Sept. 7-10
East Atlanta Strut, East Atlanta Village, Sept. 16
North Georgia State Fair, J.R. Miller Park in Marietta, Sept. 21-Oct. 1.
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