"I’m not bitter, really I’m not, not one little bit
The last time I reported on the Indiana State Fair, way back in August of 2006, I was lamenting the fact that a certain restaurant critic had been laughed out of the cooking contest circuit for entering such an old-school, low-glam food item as corn fritters in a corporate-sponsored culinary competition. Seems that a year ago, fair foods required a lot more flash and bling to impress the crowds, and something your grandmother might have whipped up out of her summer harvest just didn’t cut it.
Funny how the gastronomic winds can shift. Flash forward 12 months, and what do you think the crowd favorite, award-winning fair food of choice is in 2007? Corn fritters, of course! Cajun corn fritters, to be exact, though their Cajun character is a bit subject to taste, as you’ll find out. Whether or not last year’s review inspired some clever local fry cooks to reconsider a classic, I clearly was a year too early. But I’m not bitter. On the contrary, I’m happy to see such a tasty, Hoosier-inspired treat finally get its due. Just don’t say I didn’t tell you so.
Of course, it makes sense that Indiana’s most characteristic agricultural output would be featured in the fair foods, as this has been designated the “Year of Corn” by fair officials and promoters. It’s practically a reactionary move, given all the environmentalists decrying the lack of biodiversity on our plates (all too much of it derived from corn) or the encroachment of more ethanol-ready crops such as switchgrass. There may be more than corn in Indiana, but this year it’s time to revel in and champion Indiana’s No. 1 crop and our status as the nation’s fifth largest producer of the big yellow ears. And few snacks take so perfectly to corn as fritters.
I could let my big head get in the way and say this year’s fritters, inspired by Mudbug’s Cajun Café in Carmel and offered by Urick Concessions, aren’t all that. But I have to admit they’re perfectly fried, sweet, a tad creamy and full of all the delicious corny goodness that should win them such a taste-off. As fritters, there isn’t much that’s Cajun about them — they’re mild as a hush puppy. Only when you dip them in a sauce made of mayonnaise, mustard and “secret spices” do they head up the Scoville scale — though not very far. In my two tastings, friends and colleagues alike were split on whether you even needed the sauce. But at $3 for a serving of six, they’re one of the best bargains at this year’s fair.
On the other hand, inflation has hit my go-to favorite, the corndogs from the pink and blue stand in front of Champions Pavilion. Of course, an extra 50 cents (the regular corndogs are $3.50) is a small price to pay for these archetypal dogs. A State Fair without them, well, would be pretty miserable. Leave it to Spaghetti Eddie’s to try to improve on the basic corndog with his “caliente” corndog ($3) with jalapeños and chipotle peppers. Unfortunately, these dogs had almost no heat to them, despite the hot sauce the woman in the wagon said was added to the batter. Neither did a chipotle ketchup add much spice, though the corndogs are still some of the best on the fairgrounds.
Just to assert their primacy as the fair’s most double take-inspiring concessions, Corydon’s Carousel Foods offers up “Deep-Fried Pepsi” this year, a sort of misnomer for a sweet that’s a lot farther from molecular gastronomy than you’d think. It’s actually funnel cake batter moistened with Pepsi, fried into balls and topped with a squirt of Pepsi syrup. They’re tasty enough, if not that redolent of Pepsi flavor.
Of all the fried items we sampled, from spiral-cut potato chips to fried green tomatoes, nothing seemed to suffer from the lack of trans fats, which State Fair officials outlawed earlier this summer. Unfortunately, Dr. Vegetable’s sauerkraut balls are a tad over stuffed with kraut and not as flavorful as last year, though they’re pretty consistent with other offerings. Sadly, too, we were denied beignets, another fried favorite, from The Baker Man wagon by the Swine Barn, though we heard they were available later.
Duck returns to the bone at the Indiana State Poultry Association tent, restoring all the flavor of the real deal in what’s still the best steal of the food booths. For $6.50, you get a quarter of a grilled duck, a duck bratwurst, applesauce, chips and a drink. You could feed a family on this meal. If you happen to overdo it, the fine folks at Tum’s have set up a “Tum’s Diner” to help you soothe your overindulgences. Just in time for you to go back and eat some more corn-based snacks that this food writer, at least, tried to get you to eat last year.
Indiana State Fair
1202 E. 38th St.
Continuing through Sunday, Aug. 19, www.indianastatefair.com
Recommended dishes: Cajun corn fritters, corndogs, deep-fried Pepsi, duck, fried green tomatoes, corn, corn, corn