Summer's ending; let the State Fair soothe your pain

No event is a more bittersweet reminder of summer's waning than the Indiana State Fair. Sunsets fall earlier each night on the grandstands and pavilions of cloggers and country-music fans. Over the shouts of carnies, the bleating of sheep, melancholy crickets unspool their wiry sonata of death. With each passing day, a few more rabbits and draft horses head home, leaving their cages and stalls with a fragrant residue of their two-week sublease. Even the prize-winning cakes and cookies sag behind glass, once mouth-watering confections nullified by the humidity of another Hoosier August. Any guess where these longsuffering snickerdoodles and quick breads will end up? Fair-goers line up to sample the latest deep fried candy sensation: Reese's peanut butter cups.

Given such an unctuous cocktail of ecstasy and ennui, who could fault the fairgoer for soothing her heartache with deep-fried food? Who would blame a lover of summer for staving off his unconsummated lust with an all-meat meal-on-a-stick? In every neon sign and barker's cry, the message is clear: Your summer orgy is ending, get busy.

In this helter-skelter setting we'd be wise to dispense with guilt. It's not like this gluttony doesn't have precedent. Oh, sure, maybe the whole "encouraging agriculture" thing was more on attendees' minds in 1852 when the first fair was held in today's Military Park. But you can't tell me a few folks didn't go home with stomach aches. You have to work your way to 56,000 ribeye sandwiches and 37,000 milkshakes, and we've honed our greed well over the past 149 years.

Thankfully, the evolution has been gradual. Few things change each year, making this the one sure bet of summer. Among 2005 innovations, "Spaghetti" Eddie Porcelli has introduced sesame seed-crusted bowties with honey or chocolate and sprinkles. Though flaky, they don't exactly offer the gut-punishing appeal of his now-famous fried Twinkies. Also new is the State Fair Bakery and Coffee Shop, on the northwest corner, a stone's throw from Goat Mountain. This climate-controlled café with counter ladies wielding pastry bags does lend the sophisticated air of a Parisian boulangerie, if sophistication is what you desire. Corydon's Carousel Foods returns with its tooth-loosening, deep-fried candy store treats. Their latest victim is Reese's peanut butter cups. They're banking that two great tastes that taste great together will taste even better with a coating of batter and a little punishment in hot oil.

As is my annual ritual, I headed there first, my palate unsullied, to get this freaky fad out of the way. Their wagon was the realm of late-adolescent men, two in Pioneer seed caps and one in a Starbucks hat, somewhat unlikely corporate bedfellows until you trace them back to the dollar signs. The latter tended to the fryer with the eye of a chemist, using a wee mesh strainer to trawl for renegade fried bits. Unlike any other vendor, these folks control their lines by issuing ticket stubs when you order. Is this a post-Sept. 11 security measure? A way to protract the suspense?

Whatever the intent, it buys them time while you wait for the feature presentation. I waited and waited. Maybe it was opening-day jitters. Maybe the oil wasn't hot enough. Whatever the case, the Starbucks guy was having some trouble. One of my cups erupted, spilling its peanut butter guts. He shared a wincing glance with one of his compatriots but served it to me anyway.

The joy of a Reese's peanut butter cup is how the yin of chocolate and the yang of peanut butter are kept separate and in perfect, perilous balance. It's the snap of the first bite, the sweetness married to saltiness gradually by the tongue and teeth. Under the stress of heat, however, the equilibrium is thrown; the chocolate becomes a sauce, and the peanut butter asserts its brackish bite. Batter can hardly contain the cacophony. Powdered sugar sends it over the top. I had little time to contemplate these confectionary conundrums. A rumble down Main Street ushered in a cloudburst that reduced my crispy treats to a doughy mess.

Day 2. It's just as sweltering, but the threat of rain has passed. Summoned by the siren song of "All Day Ride Survival" - basically $20 for all the skull-rattling joyrides you want - children swarm the place, overstimulated and squealing.

I give the Reese's cups another chance. This time, I head to a booth marked "Extreme Fair Food." These guys also hail from Corydon, the former capital, they remind me, until Indianapolis "stole" that distinction. Though they're careful not to cause factions, they're definitely confident of their frying skills. Under a blue sky, I order with abandon: two deep-fried Reese's cups and, Lord help me, a fried Moonpie. The Reese's cups, are, indeed, better - crispier, no spilled innards. Still, I'm not sent.

"This is something different altogether," the lone woman behind the counter opines, handing me my Moonpie. Different indeed. An intemperate, Whopper-sized patty, the Moonpie has submitted nicely to the hot oil, gooey but still presenting quite firm cake. But the underdone coating has the bitter, saline sting of poorly mixed pancake batter. We taste baking soda, salt and raw flour.

On the wagon's metal roof, someone has affixed a strip of paper with Bible verses. One of them, Philippians 4: 6-7, paraphrases, "Don't be afraid of anything. Pray, thank God, and he'll remember you." Fair enough. Looking this up at home, I notice one adjacent verse, verse 5, with a more sinister portent: "Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand." Talk about a killjoy message from Paul! Thankfully someone had the good sense not to post this above a deep fryer full of Moonpies.