The Fair tends to open with a big bang -- if you see it on TV. For those of us who are roaming around behind the scene and at hours other than 5, 6, and 10 -- it starts out slower.
To be honest, it's been a slow rise. A month ago most of us were out here checking out the preview of the action at a special get-together for media folk. We got to meet the Lo Cash Cowboys, sample Pig Lickers and funnel cakes, and generally soak up some excitement. And a lot of it there has been. Doesn't matter if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, there's nothing like the Fair.
So it was that I got out here at noon on opening day. Most of the broadcast media has been here for some time, setting up live trucks and live shots and generally bugging the tar out of vendors and carnies. It's par for the course -- those individuals you see on TV will be sought out by fans of shows, who'll be proud to mention "hey, I saw you on KXXX!"
There were a bit more than just the media crowd when I arrived. There were also a good number of people with their very young kids -- the ones who aren't quite in school yet. They were taking advantage of what seems to be perfect weather -- 80ish with a slight breeze and few clouds in the sky. I noticed a lot of larger bellies this year -- seems we may be going through a bit of a baby boom.
I immediately set out on today's assignment -- wrapping up more than a month's worth of work on Fair food. This particularly American thing of ours, sharing large portions of extremely wild and sometimes unhealthy food, does get us sometimes. I can't imagine gnawing a Pig Licker myself, but my allergy kinda does that in for me. However a lot of other items on the menu were more than delectable, and they made me happy.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. Where later attendees will be overwhelmed with the buttery smell of popcorn, the musk of livestock and the press of human flesh, at opening what you get is the sweet. The air is permeated with the first rounds of cotton candy, lemonade, and funnel cakes. There's a little whiff of meat in the air, but nothing like you'll get later - and absolutely no smell of beer (which, if memory serves, will become overpowering by a week from Sunday).
I took a right after entering at Gate 5 and joined a crowd that had come on one of the shuttles from War Memorial Stadium. I like this idea -- parking is always fun here, sure, but being able to park and ride directly to the gate's just primo.
My first stop for pictures was at a large stand featuring, no
surprise, all sorts of porkiness. Ribs and bacon and other porcine delights grabbed at passersby, as the first batch came off the mighty grill. I did spy a bit of chicken there, too.
Further along, I glimpsed into the entertainment pavilion, where the first drinks and snacks of the day were being served up. Further along, an iced tea dealer was selling half gallons -- what a splendid and wonderful idea.
The Big Show restaurant seemed to still be closed -- perhaps in preparation for rush hour and dinner, when it will serve up big tacos and burritos for the first time in years. Mexican food hasn't been around these past few years for some reason, but this year it will make a resurgence.
Out on the midway and the carny aisle, lemonade seems to be the drink of choice. All these vendors appear to be very clean, very fresh -- they take pride in their stands and make sure everything is tip-top before the Fair begins. After all, you eat with the eyes first.
There's one vendor that surprises me -- a double decker trailer where a guy sits up top spinning cotton candy. It's something to see, for sure.
Further along is the Turkey Leg guy. You can purchase Turkey Legs many places, but here they're cooked on an open grill just feet away from you, no window in-between.
I've had Fair turkey legs before and love them, but the echo in my head about turkey goes something like the siren call of tryptophan... and I could just see myself schnoozing off.
Not that you'd get the chance around here. Everywhere around there's sound. There was a band warming up on the stage next to the Hall of Industry, barkers calling games, the sound of vehicles backing into position and the chatter all around of excited people. It's too early in the day for anyone to really be tired of anything, and that's nice.
The vendor by the Turkey Leg Guy has big rolls of Italian Sausage cooking, alongside Pork Tenderloins and big piles of onions. Sausages, tenderloins, and half pound burgers all go for $7 -- which might seem like a lot, but have you visited your local middle-of-the-road eatery these days? For once, Fair food might actually be considered a bargain.
Not far down from there, near the rapelling wall and the Lazer Tag booth, Cotton Candy is selling at $4 and $6 for mighty large portions. Though, really -- isn't it all air? Caramel and candy apples are a bargain at $3 -- another item that few kids will actually finish.
Sissy's Place is here -- I saw them a few months ago at the Cave City Watermelon Festival, and they're serving up all sorts of fried delights here, too -- including Gator on a Stick. Well, we all have our fun new things to try.
Next door the smell of meat is prevalent, at the Gyro stand. I remember as a little girl this was one of only two places you could pick up a gyro (the other being the Greek Food Festival in May). Gyros have evolved -- and now they're joined by Black Angus, Seafood Pitas, and Rosemary Garlic Chicken -- $9 for the two former and $8 for the latter.
But it's around the corner that draws the biggest draw. The Pig Lickers are here -- and they're not the same sort of Pig Lickers we saw at the media preview day. Let's give the Fair folks credit -- all they had was a description.
These folks heard about the original from the Minnesota State Fair, and they have their act
together. These Pig Lickers are sticks of pork doused in chocolate and you can get them with salt or sprinkles for an additional 50 cents. Something else!
A batch of four Pig Lickers will cost you $5. Share them with a friend.
You'll find the Pig Lickers at the Burger Wagon, where you can also get Hub Cap Burgers. These things are mighty large.
They also have big piles of home-cut skin-on fries, served on their own or with cheese, chili, and even jalapenos. There's more food on one of those platters than I could ever hope to consume!
Next door up the hill is the best smelling booth at the whole fair. It's Aunt Emma's Chocolate Chip Cookies, and these suckers are big.
Yes, $6 for a cookie may seem like a lot, but one of these suckers weighs as much as a box of Chips Ahoy and it's as big as your head -- maybe larger in circumference and about 3/4 of an inch thick. They're soft, sweet, and oh so good.
You can even have milk with your cookie for $3 more. And if the big cookies scare you, you can always go for a smaller one for a smaller price.
Of course, there's the Slush Factory -- a big wall of slushies that range from $4 for kids sizes and $6 for a yard of slushee. Around the corner you'll find a pizzaria where pizzas are $3.50 a slice or $25 for a whole pie and foot-long corn dogs for $6. Roasted corn on the cob is $4 across the aisle.
The Corner Cafe is run by the Fair folks, and this is where you'll find some marvelous stuff, like fried jalapenos and fried pickles.
The guys working were quite busy but didn't mind me dipping into the back and taking shots as they threw items into the deep fryer.
What I initially thought were big chicken legs were actually large frog legs, the largest I have ever seen. And those "chicken tenders" are actually catfish tenderloins. Wow.
Not far down is a vendor selling something called a Pineapple Whip, which I will have to try before I go. Pineapple and ice cream to a pregnant lady is ambrosia.
But I was on a search. I passed by the Superdog stand -- where incredible footlong dogs were being created.
I love how this booth smells. The big weiners are battered when you order them and cooked on the spot.
The scent of frying
cornmeal smells like an autumn night at harvest time, reminiscent of the scent of a bonfire of cornstalks. There was already quite a line at Superdog, and for good reason.
Across the way is the Grater Taters booth. That's where you can find fried cheese for $4 and fried Snickers and Milky Way bars for the same.
The next corner is Mickey's Grill (with the Turkey Legs sign on top and the biggest jar of pickles I think I've ever seen) -- where they serve kebabs $6 for one or $10 for two.
I watched and savored the flavor as a round was cooked up and talked with the proprietor. We shared notes about shooting photos for fun while I enjoyed the lemon pepper chicken aroma wafting over everything.
There's a booth on the other side of the vendor island from Mickey's that's serving up something called a Hot Beef Sundae. Sounds a bit wrong in some way, but looking at it, it makes a lot of sense. Instead of chocolate syrup on a mound of ice cream, this one features a chunk of beef in gravy over mashed potatoes. Cheddar cheese bits replace the sprinkles.
Next door was a vendor straight out of Wisconsin (with Green Bay Packer cred inside) -- selling up fried cheese nuggets. Boy they look good! Of course, Wisconsin being the place for all things cheese, it must be.
But it was the next further vendor that carried exactly what I was searching for -- the Holy Grail of this woman's cravings -- real, honest to goodness T-Ravs. I mentioned it to the proprietor, and he gawked at me and asked if I was from St. Louis. He's traveled to 12 other states for fairs, and it's the first time someone has refered to toasted raviolis by their God-given name.
They're hand-made and come in Italian sausage, four cheese, and more -- and you get eight of them for $6. And they are indeed a meal.
I did find Fried Dr. Pepper at last -- right next to the Hall of Industry steps. And while similar to Fried Coke, it is indeed an experience all its own. It wasn't quite as "Dr. Peppery" as I would have imagined, but it was good, and you can taste the cola within.
It's served up in a 12 ounce cup, little Pepper-flavored dumplings covered in whipped cream, yum.
Next door is the ubiquitous Fried Twinkie stand, with another new entry I'll have to try -- Fried Zingers. Yes, the lovely raspberry and coconut confections, frozen, battered, and then deep fried. Bet it's going to be sweet.
By the time the Fair is over, I stand to gain a few pounds, but the food memories will last forever. I have an appointment to return and see more stuff -- and try my Fair favorite, the funnel cake. For me, no fair is complete without the confection -- and it's about the only time of year I try it.
And of course, my laugh of the day. Take a close look at the sign by the electric bull.
I'm thrilled the Fair is here, and so glad there are nine more days to enjoy it. Perhaps next time I'll venture into the Hall of Industry or out further onto the midway. One way or another, it's important to pace yourself. If you plan to sample lots of the different fare, take friends with you. And I'd suggest some wet naps and paper towels stuck into your trousers, just as insurance -- though even wet naps are no match for blowing powdered sugar in the wind.