October… that lovely time of year when the scent of burning leaves fills the air. It’s worse if you’re in Northeast Arkansas, where the fields are burned off. But in Little Rock, you can be just about anywhere and catch a waft of funnel cake or fried meat drifting by. It’s State Fair time, and that means time for food.
But what can you find at the fair this year? All sorts of strange and unusual stuff, things you’d never try in a restaurant but might be apt to try at the once a year extravaganza known as the Arkansas State Fair.
Take, for instance, the Pig Licker. No, not a reference to someone’s sexuality or penchant for fetish, but a real honest to goodness dish from the Minnesota State Fair, where it debuted in August.
Famous Dave’s paired up with Cargill and Wilton Chocolates up there to come up with the original -- sticks of apple wood bacon dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkled with sea salt.
Here in Arkansas, the fair folks are doing it a bit differently. Instead of cold bacon and its Magic Shell-like chocolate, bacon rounds are threaded onto sticks and dipped in a rich milk chocolate sauce. The combination of sweet and salty is sure to turn heads this year.
Another unusual entry at this year’s fair -- deep fried hot dogs. Seriously. No, not corn dogs (which can be found hand-battered and fried along with all sorts of other foods in the vendor section of the fair) but hot dogs directly applied to hot oil. The result is an exploded dog served up on a bun. Sorta like when you decide you’d like to have a hot dog at home but decide to stick it in the nuke instead of going through the trouble of sticking it in the oven.
New also to the fair this year -- boiled peanuts. They’re big out East, but around here chances are you get your nuts roasted or toasted. Boiled peanuts are considered a delicacy by some. To me, they’re like eating something a bit softer and wetter than a Macadamia -- I’m just not that big a fan.
I’ve been perusing the official list of foods from the Fair folks that contains what’s new and what’s tried and true. I was quite surprised to see Mozzarella Sticks on the new list. We’ve all had them, right? Sometimes they’re pretty good -- when they’re cooked the right amount of time. Sometimes, especially late night in your favorite bar, they can come out absolutely hollow after being left in the oil a bit too long.
Another new entry this year is cheese nuggets -- big lumps of cheddar cheese that have been battered and deep fried. This savory something comes from Wisconsin (no surprise there) and will fill you up quick. Not for those who can’t tolerate a bit of grease.
A new favorite of mine is making its debut at the Fair this year -- T-Ravs, as they’re known in St. Louis. Toasted ravioli is very popular up there, but hard to find south of the Missouri border. An Italian food vendor is coming down to share T-Ravs, toasted cannelloni, Italian Sausage on a Stick, and Meatballs on a Stick with us. T-Ravs are best served hot with a cool pool of marinara for dipping. I’m assuming that toasted cannelloni will be similar -- cannelloni in itself is usually a long thick tube of cheese and/or meat. I suppose they’re going to cap the ends somehow. Meatballs on a Stick seems like a no-brainer to me -- sort of like Italian shish-kebab.
Of course, that’s not all you’ll find deep fried at the Fair this year. Though Arkansas’ big event tends to be a little less fried than, say, food row at the Texas State Fair, you can’t throw a T-Rav without hitting something fried. On the heels of the ever popular Fried Coke comes Fried Dr. Pepper. The batter is similar to what you’ll find in a funnel cake; the big difference is that the liquid in the recipe has been replaced with Dr. Pepper. The dumplings of Pepper-dom come doused with a little Dr. Pepper syrup and topped with a bit of whipped cream.
Another entry into the “I can’t imagine why they needed to deepfry that” category -- Deep Fried Chicken Fried Steak on a Stick. That takes some getting your head around. I’m having a hard time even picturing it. I wonder if it’s served with gravy.
Then there’s deep fried cheesecake -- another one of those things that someone out there thought needed perfecting. I talked with Tom Lyons, the Director of Food Services at the Arkansas State Fair, and he tends to agree. “I don’t know why someone would take a perfectly good food like cheesecake and deep fry it,” he told me when relating some of the many things that are coming to the Fair this year. “But someone probably wanted to give it a try.”
Most of this sort of unique food is coming to the Fair via vendors who travel from fair to fair, selling neat and new ideas to people who have never tried such things. But the State Fair folks have a few ideas of their own. They’re operating the Corner Café -- a pavilion opposite the Hall of Industry where you can find all sorts of Arkansas-inspired delights. Big on this year’s menu -- deep fried jalapenos and dill pickles. They’re also serving up whole fried catfish filets, jumbo fried chicken tenderloins (apparently from jumbo chickens?), and jumbo frog legs -- apparently larger than your average drumstick. I wonder if Kermit knows.
One more Fair folk entry into the fried food arena -- fried hot wings.
Rounding out other fried foods at the Fair -- the Southern classic, Fried Green Tomatoes. I wonder how the tart tasting veggies will sell alongside all those other offerings.
One food Lyons told me about did give me a bit of a boost -- an idea that seems natural to me, but a bit tastier and healthier than the traditional Fair food. This year, you’ll be able to find Sirloin Burgers not far off the Midway. These hand-patted fresh ground creations have never seen a freezer. “It’s fresh ground from the steak, which is good stuff,” Lyons says. I believe him. Cooked to order fresh burgers sound remarkably good even now.
Another cuisine that’s making a comeback this year -- Mexican. One of our local chains used to run a concession at the Fair, but that petered off in recent years. This time around, jumbo tacos and burritos are making their debut, along with chimichangas, which have never been done at our fair before.
Sounds like most of the stuff I’ve mentioned just couldn’t be healthy for you, right? Well, guess again. Strawberry Smoothies are coming in -- lots of fruit, lots of dairy, the perfect thing to wolf down with your chili dog before jumping on a ride. There are also beef and chicken kebabs, rosemary chicken, gyros, and taco salads. So even those with an aversion to things that are deep fried or battered have some options.
But for most Fairgoing folks, eating out at the Fair is about excess. You can see it in the two and three foot long specialty corn dogs, the ginormous turkey legs, the massive Bloomin’ Onions and Hub Cap Burgers. You can taste it in deep fried candy bars, in hot fudge cakes, in new entries such as the Italian Pot Roast Sandwich and old favorites like overloaded plates of nachos.
Old favorites like funnel cakes aren’t just topped with powdered sugar; for a little more, you can have apples or sugar-sweetened strawberry sauce or chocolate syrup or even caramel drizzled all
over. Nut rolls, candy and caramel apples, Frito pies, ice cream (and the ubiquitous Dippin’ Dots) are still around, as are the massive tall cups of fresh squeezed lemonade. This year, there are even people selling barbeque ribs. Screams of Memphis, doesn’t it?
Lyons seems pretty excited about all the new foods coming into the Fair this year. He knows what it’s all about.
“The thing about fair food, the uniqueness -- it’s stuff people won’t try at restaurants.” And he’s right. Our state fair is a chance to throw caution to the wind. It’s 10 days out of the year when diets go right out the window in favor of a chance to sample something unique and different that you’re not going to find on the menu at your local restaurant, stuff you aren’t willing to waste money on experimenting with at home. Never mind that the fried Oreo you’re about to bite into is loaded with calories -- it’s something different, something to entertain your palate as you’re overloading your eyes and ears on the exhilaration of a once-a-year happening. So what if you gain a few pounds?
It’s the beginning of a cycle -- we start pigging out at the Fair, then gorge ourselves on Halloween candy, fight our way to the juiciest part of the bird at Thanksgiving, wallow in chocolates throughout the Yuletide season and drown the old year out on December 31st. Perhaps it’s our way of preparing ourselves for the coming winter, putting on those extra stores of fat to keep us warm through Arkansas’ brief but sometimes bitter cold season. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s our way of celebrating a great and bountiful harvest in a modern way, enjoying the crops of fertile minds who enjoy dipping things in chocolate or batter and seeing how people react to the uniqueness of it all. There’s not a bit of telling. We all have our reasons for the Fair-time pig-out. It’s best sometimes just not to think about it too much.
The Arkansas State Fair runs October 10-19 at the State Fairgrounds in Little Rock. Check out the website for schedules and the like.