Fair food a gastronomic roller coaster

The heralded Doughnut Burger. Photo by Mark Lee

Ah, the Indiana State Fair, where the sun crowns a giant facsimile sculpture of Grant Wood's American Gothic farm couple, who overlook a grove of ten foot corn stalks while, nearby, barking dogs leap into an enormous tank of water. For those seeking shade, there are miles of exhibits covering everything from Embryo Transfer in Sheep to The Flea, A Pesky Parasite.

And for the hungry...well, they won't be hungry long.

The Indiana State Fair is a phantasmagoria of food. Miles of vendors' stands offering a vertiginous array of grilled, fried and frozen fare. It's a gastronomic roller coaster ride.

Fair food speaks--shouts is actually more like it--to that part of the appetite that's never grown up. There's lots that's sweet and salty here, along with some concoctions that seem like they must have been invented at the tail end of a frat house party with whatever happened to be at hand.

We started at the more conventional end of this spectrum, with a visit to Delia's Barbeque, across from the DNR building. Delia is famous for seasoning her pork with root beer, a process that produces delightfully tender meat with a subtly sweet flavor. We sampled the Pulled Pork Taco ($4), a heaping scoop of shredded meat dressed with cheese, a glimpse of lettuce and some salsa served on a soft taco, as well as a couple of short ribs ($5) topped with a mix of sweet and hot sauces. Those sauces rendered us mute with happiness. The sweet and hot notes played in alternating measure.

From there we made our way to fried food row, a line of vendors located beneath the Coliseum's imperious art deco facade. This is where the deep fried Oreos, Pepsi and even butter (!) can be found. We, however, were after even bigger game: the Doughnut Burger ($6.50), a hamburger with all the trimmings (including bacon for an extra buck) placed between two halves of a Krispy Kreme doughnut. A slightly dazed woman in line with us at Delia's told us about the Doughnut Burger in a way early explorers might have described a brush with a sea monster. How could we resist?

The burger itself was actually very good, the trimmings fresh. This was fortunate because the sensation of pulling one's mouth away from a hamburger with an upper lip glazed with sugar was, in a word, appalling.

But we were undeterred. A mere five dollars bought us a serving of Pigs in Mud, two strips of bacon slathered in dark chocolate and dusted with confectioner's sugar. As we tore into this blood-curdling dish we spied memorials--narrow gravestones planted in the well-trod grass of the narrow median where, perhaps, overeaters were buried where they fell.

The Tater ($6) is a State Fair favorite. A large spud is driven through an ingenious machine that opens it into petals like an enormous flower or, put another way, a potato bomb. This bomb is then deep-fried and served on a large paper plate. You are then free to dust or dress it with a variety of seasonings. Miraculously, the result is not overly greasy, making The Tater a great non-meat item for sharing with a small group.

Finally, we gave the inauspiciously named Garbage Burger ($7) a try. The happy product of a both/and approach to life, the Garbage Burger combines a pork tenderloin with pulled pork on a bun. This combo is then finished with a sweet orange sauce, pretty much overwhelming the meat, which was tender and juicy in its own right.

We couldn't bid the Fair adieu without a stop at the Dairy Bar for milkshakes ($2.75). Three flavors, the classics--vanilla, chocolate and raspberry--are on offer. These aren't shaken so much as whipped into a dense cup of frigid richness. A simple but satisfying way to finish another year's feeding frenzy at the Fair.