Indiana’s State Fair was, more or less, invented in the mid 1800s to help encourage agriculture. Food has always been a draw for this yearly event.
As our salacious natures are ever harder to satisfy 150-plus years later, we need more than just meat, pork or corn to draw us. Perhaps that’s why fair vendors started putting things on a stick, with everything from sirloin to gyros this year.
But sticks are so 20th century. The bar has been raised: What new things can be put on a stick? What liquids can be frozen (Pepsi) or fried (Pepsi)? Of course, fried foods get a pass to be whatever they are, as long as they’re all that they can be. Regular fried food is good, but newer is better.
First, a vote for what I’d call classic fried food: Wisconsin Hot Cheese’s mozzarella sticks. Take your regular mozzarella stick, with its thick, breaded exterior covered in parsley flakes, and throw it out the window. This version, at the stand by the Pioneer Pavilion, used a dark, crispy batter like that on Long John Silver’s fish. It was messy, thin and crispy, providing a greasy gossamer shell for the thick cheese to break through.
Move along to what I’ll deem Vendor Row for the fair’s densest offerings. The row is that seemingly unending line of food vendors going toward the main stage. Past the carnivalesque vendor hawking fried Pepsi balls made all the more surreal by the nearby fresh veggie demonstration, you’ll find a happy medium: fried veggies. This selection’s not only tasty, it’s smart. Why choose between the giant onion rings, fried mushrooms and fried green tomatoes when you can get all three in one carton, plus some tasty green peppers and cauliflower?
Speaking of the carnivalesque, don’t forget to check out the “Let’s Cook Some Bugs!” demonstration that’s been going on at the Red Gold stage in the Pioneer Pavilion. A crazy-haired entomologist with a wild look in his eyes and a kooky bow tie goes through a list of canned vegetables that are FDA sanctioned to have so many insect parts per serving. This is the strange psychology the demonstrator offers before the show’s climax: cooking bugs.
If you’ve never had a fried mealworm, you’ll have the chance here — and to see it wriggle, still alive in the pan, before you do. Rest assured, they taste nutty. At least with all the margarine the demonstrator douses them with.
All this bug-eating may clean your teeth, as the entomologist says — or it may make you thirsty. Know, however, that if you fall for the “old fashion” promise of “Doc’s” root beer, you’ll really be drinking Mug. I peeked behind the barrel façade. It’s still tasty, though!
Oh, and if you want a tenderloin sandwich, stick with the fried version. I tried what I thought might be a tasty, healthier version at the Murat’s charitable food area. The fair gods punished me. Pork tenderloin was not meant to be grilled in Indiana, at least not before being breaded.
By this time, my money was running short, and I still hadn’t had a dessert. Would I choose the fried Pepsi balls? The fried brownies? One of the Dole whipped soft serve thingies in tropical flavors? I did succumb to a pineapple “shake” at one of those stands where wood-painted whipped dessert women beckon wantonly. The shake was a bit icier than creamy, though I heard the opposite opinion about it, too.
As for my winning dessert pick: If you like cheesecake, and you’re at the State Fair, then you simply cannot leave without trying the fried bananas Foster cheesecake on a stick. The cheesecake part isn’t as tangy as regular cheesecake, and it’s tempered with a sugary, cinnamon-laden layer of bananas Foster that tastes like old, fermented banana, but in a good way. And then the whole thing is packaged in a little fried square, three of which nestle next to vanilla yogurt. I’m not crazy about the yogurt. The rest of it, yes.