"After 150 years, I finally get the point

It’s 12:50 p.m. on the first Friday of the Indiana State Fair, 2006. Blue skies after a morning of rain. For once, I’m fighting the ravenous, eat-as-I-go mentality that overwhelms me as soon as I step up out of the infield tunnel and sniff the sweet batter-dipped air. Today, I have a loftier culinary goal. I’m entering my first State Fair cooking competition; visions of blue ribbons swim in my swollen head.

Approaching the judge’s kitchen in the Home and Family Arts Building for the 1 p.m. check-in, however, I start to worry. Could I, an undisputed champion of fair food eating, have misunderstood what a champion fair food truly entails? In this, the Hidden Valley® Original Ranch “Family Friendly Food” Contest, entries look like what you’d see in a midway funhouse: a pasta “pizza” the size of a Ferris wheel, Technicolor fruit kabobs bobbing above a lake of Ranch dressing. My Ranch-flavored corn fritters, or “Ranch pups,” suddenly seem witless and dull. A woman who could be my grandmother — I have to look to make sure she isn’t — finds my name with a ruler, marks me off with a pink highlighter. “Come back in an hour,” she mutters.

Back up out of the catacombs of glorious cakes, light-as-air biscuits and once-perfect peanut brittle now piles of goo (“Brittle looked fine when judged,” a sign clarifies), I get my bearings and search for some much-needed sustenance. To calm my nerves, I opt for always-reliable lamb from the Indiana Sheep Association, this year with somewhat roomier digs. I get a lamb barbecue ($4), definitely the most lamb for your dollar — all of it tender and delicious without too much sauce sogging up the bun. You don’t have to enjoy it in the sheep barn as I did, but the bleating definitely adds a seasoning of its own.

As my fritters’ fate draws closer, I’ve got to have a corndog, the one corn treat no one would deny is a fairgoer favorite. For two years now, you’ve heard me triumph the ones from a pink and aqua stand in front of the Champions Pavilion. Like that old lover you rendezvous with once a year, these expert corndog purveyors from Florida are here again — and friendlier than usual. I’m almost able to get the batter recipe out of the owner’s granddaughter. Alas, I have to guess as I sink my teeth into a steamy, crunchy, salty-sweet apotheosis of a corndog. It’s still $3. Get one or regret your years on this Earth.

Just minutes before the judging, I stop to sample what a true winning item can be. Though The Indianapolis Star poll was conducted without the benefit of tasting, Marion’s LT Concessions won for best new fair food with their deep-fried chocolate covered strawberries, four of which go for $4, just opposite Pepsi Coliseum. Less gut-busting than such recent deep-fried stars as Moon Pies and Oreos, these are definitely delicate and sweet, though a runny “glaze,” chocolate sauce, and clouds of whipped cream turn the crisp coating on the berries soggy. I’d prefer them without the garnishes — OK, maybe the chocolate. But then, I’m the one who’s just entered some unmistakably boring fritters in a cooking competition.

Meanwhile, back at the Ranch, er, Ranch competition, things are not so sweet. I’ll save you the gory details, but with all of the accolades, compliments and smiles the other entries engender, my “pups” draw confusion, bemusement even. The judge calls them “basically embellished corn fritters.” After all of those flashier, concept-heavy concoctions, mine doesn’t stand a chance.

Day four, Saturday, I slink back to the fair to tend to my wounds with some contest-losing food. Maybe I can commiserate or figure out just where I went wrong? Perhaps just eat my sorrows away? First up is Jessop’s caramel corn “pie.” I wouldn’t recommend anything larger than the $3 size. This is basically a big pile of buttered popcorn drenched in caramel, chocolate sauce and chopped walnuts. Is it a pie? No. But it’s perfect for the lover of mixing sweet and salty things.

Next I taste what should have won. The lines agree. It takes a good 15 minutes to get up to the counter at Dr. Vegetable to order three oversized balls of deep-fried sauerkraut ($5). With just the right amount of cheese, not-too-sour kraut and even green flecks of what might be sage or parsley, these are a surprisingly airy treatment for German fare — even dipped in a sorry reminder of the previous day’s losses: Ranch dressing.

Not surprisingly, Spaghetti Eddie had two entries in the top five, though I can’t bring myself to eat the “Cool Dog,” a hotdog-shaped ice cream confection not unlike the one Marge Simpson made. Fairgoers can typically rely on Eddie for such wonders as deep-fried Twinkies, but his other entry, deep-fried “puff balls,” are a baffling creation neither very puffy nor shaped like balls. Billed as a variation on the cannoli, they do have a cheesy, anise-flavored center. Served cold, however, the puff pastry crust is tough and hardly succulent. Is it possible my fair concoction was not even better than this one? Sated, swooning, I stroll home, pondering all the things I learned — again — at this year’s fair.

The 150th Indiana State Fair

1202 E. 38th St.

Continuing through Sunday, Aug. 20





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