Down at the Our Land Pavilion, David Day was extolling the virtues of lamb. He invited me to stick my hand into a box of sheep’s wool to feel the natural lanolin. Bringing my fingers up from the fuzz, they glistened. Lamb, Day says, is gaining ground, but it’s still got a bad rap. Animal-rights advocates aside, most consumers consider lamb a high-end product or something only Greeks or Middle Eastern people eat. He’s hoping young diners will give this meat its due, and he handed me a long list of producers happy to supply the lamb for my table.
Over at the Home & Family Arts Building, Paige Hayes of Camby was showing her children her championship cake, a traditional multitiered masterpiece shrouded in ivory fondant and crowned with an elegant pedestal bowl of fruit. “You’ve got three more ribbons, Mom,” her son said. “Are you keeping count for me?” Hayes answered, beaming.
That’s the way it is at the fair. In every neon-lit wagon, snack counter or pavilion, you can’t help but realize an eminently simple fact: People make food happen. Whether it’s the guy who flips the steaks for your Hoosier rib-eye sandwich or the woman who cuts the lemons for your shake-up, the whole buzzing mechanism of fair food preparation is on display for 12 days of uninhibited consumption.
You can also get an eyeful of what your food was a few days before you ate it. Where else can you stroll into a barn and nibble a corndog while marveling at the supposed world’s largest boar and sow? Or dine on lamb and eggs mere feet from where Shropshires and Shetlands bleat under the whirring blades of shearers?
Speaking of corndogs, don’t just settle for the first stand you see. For my $3, I trust the little turquoise and pink wagon just opposite the Champions Pavilion. Look for the crew in “Meatball Factory” hats occasionally shouting in Italian. They’ve brought their corndog expertise up from Florida, and you won’t find a more expert dog anywhere. We tried. The corndogs next door were $2.50, and one frugal fairgoer in our party thought he’d save four bits. His was adequate, if a bit tough. But by the time he’d tasted the utterly light, perfectly crisp $3 dog, he was ready to spend that and more to have another.
Few things change at the fair. Dippin’ Dots is still the “Ice Cream of the Future” after the Illinois-based Curt Jones first invented it in 1988. And hot Wisconsin cheese is still sold just outside the Midway by genuine cheese-heads from Plymouth, Wis. But a few new items do sneak in. Recent additions to the pantheon of fair foods include the Philippine delicacy “sati-babi,” a marinated pork kebab ($2.50) that comes by way of Terre Haute. Zeke’s Kettle Corn is also innovating with tangy dill pickle popcorn and Atkins-friendly pork rinds.
By now it seems compulsory that another deep-fried item tempt health nuts to drop their jaws. This year it’s Oreos that have found themselves subjected to the intense temperatures of the fryer. What this does to them is, indeed, curious, but nothing this critic is afraid to describe — or ingest. The heat softens the cookies, not unlike a good soaking in milk. Shrouded in batter, the cookies offer a sweet, mealy filling for the dough pockets that one fairgoer described as Walt Disney’s version of dim sum. Four fried Oreos cost $3, a couple bucks less than St. Elmo’s will charge you for three shrimp across the way.
For sheer value, you can’t go wrong with the “Fair Deal” from the Indiana State Poultry Association. For $6.75, you get a meaty barbecued duck breast, a duck “brat,” applesauce, chips and a 20-ounce beverage, although, unfortunately, the duck meat is served off the bone this year, making it considerably drier and less succulent. Mere feet away, lamb novices can get their first taste of a tender lamb skewer ($4.50), and numerous tents feature “the other white meat” in everything from the holy tenderloin to a pork chop sandwich.
Vegetarians can feast on fried green tomatoes ($4.50) or King’s famous spiral-cut taters ($5), and honey fans will love the flavor local bees lend to ice cream ($1.50 a cup) at the Marsh Agriculture & Horticulture Building. You can get healthy salads and sliced fruits there as well. But, really, doesn’t a jumbo strawberry shortcake ($5) seem more in keeping with this annual tribute to gluttony?
The Indiana State Fair continues through Aug. 22: 927-7500 or go to www.indianastatefair.com.