The Indiana State Fair is a great annual celebration of Hoosier pride, farming, food, and 4-H, with amusement park rides and big-ticket concerts by Top-40 or country artists. My son decided long ago that it wasn’t his thing anymore, but my wife and I attend each year as a date-day to seek new forms of creativity and imagination. Mostly that means culinary concoctions that shouldn’t exist but do.
First, foremost, and most unfathomable: the “Elvis” — a bacon peanut-butter banana burger.
It sounds heinous, but wasn’t all that bad when you realize bananas and Jif Creamy peanut butter aren’t exactly sharp-flavored foodstuffs. They made the sandwich richer and creamier, for what that’s worth. If you remember that banana is a tropical fruit, pretend that the salt on the burger is like sea salt, and imagine that the bacon is reminiscent of a roast pig at a luau, then you could tell people it’s a Hawaiian Paradise Burger. Rationalizing the peanut butter might be trickier.
Carousel Foods, the people who run the Twisted Burgers stand that presented the “Elvis”, added a second new dish to this year’s mad menu: the raspberry donut chicken sandwich.
Grilled chicken patty, one pair of raspberry-filled Krispy Kremes, optional bacon and cheese. You can add onion, pickle, lettuce, and/or tomato as well. In a very distant way, this was not unlike those fancy main courses at upscale restaurants where meat is sometimes adorned with an eccentric fruit glaze. Then again, those recipes rarely involve this much sugar.
On the less challenging yet tastefully crafted side: spaghetti ice cream. That’s spaghetti-shaped gelato, strawberry sauce in lieu of tomato, white chocolate shavings feigning the appearance of parmesan, and malted chocolate balls for garnish. The inventive disguise failed to ruin the straightforward, acceptable gelato taste.
Not all unusually shaped food at the State Fair is meant to be chomped. Witness the new work from Sarah Kauffman, who carves a new cheese sculpture every year. For 2012 the State Fair saluted the “Year of Dairy Cows”. After sitting on display for all seventeen days of the fair, I doubt anyone will be kicking this down and spreading its remains on Ritz crackers.
Some food is brought to the fair strictly for competitive purposes. Here, Fred the Farmer celebrates his ribbons and victory over other, lesser gourds. Sadly for us, we visited the fair two days before either the annual giant-pumpkin contest or the giant pumpkin-carving project could begin.
Another annual tradition: a canned-food sculpture contest. After interesting shapes are constructed and judged, the materials are donated to anti-hunger organizations. Most years present a variety of licensed characters rendered in tin and aluminum. This year, Mater was among the few famous faces to be temporarily immortalized in cans.
Also not presently edible: cute goats, demanding feed and attention, in that order. We tend to avoid the large animal barns (more of a concern than ever this year — the swine bar was evacuated due to illness fears), but a few smaller animals hung out in a tented area on the north side of the fairgrounds.
A slightly more cooperative, less clingy animal: this cow mascot. Year of the Dairy Cow has been in effect! Go get a late pass! STEP!
Less standoffish and more heroic: good ol’ Smokey the Bear, 68 years young.
Younger and even less standoffish than Posturing Cow: the Mapapa African Acrobats, delivering three free performances every day on what appeared to be an extremely sturdy, weather-resistant outdoor stage. Regardless, to be on the safe side in light of last year’s tragic headlines, this night’s scheduled performance by the Spinners was relocated to alternate indoor accommodations when storm clouds began to loom overhead, physically and psychologically.
Less sturdy, but more enduring: this Department of Natural Resources diorama that reenacts the effects of flooding on a tiny Indiana town. This diorama has been a staple of the DNR Building in one form or another for decades, and shows no signs of being replaced or losing the crowds’ interest. Everyone dutifully gathers around to watch the tank fill slowly with water, and then a few of the miniatures float, and then the waters recede by the grace of tiny diorama Mother Nature or whatever. Simple yet captivating. Go figure.
Even more fake and less three-dimensional: this enormous photo of the Coliseum, posted in the International Pavilion, which this year is holding a salute to Italy. Last year’s country of choice was Germany; the year before was Japan. It’s just this thing they do.
Also Italian but more immediately tactile: a real gondola. At last you can walk up and examine the interior of this romantic water taxi without spending hundreds on travel fare to Venice first. Alas, no test drives permitted.
Even more unexpected than the Indiana tribute to Italy: a very special appearance by a genuine media celebrity. Over in Exposition Hall, you can visit booths and tables manned by assorted vendors, salesmen, handymen, candy pushers, policemen, outnumbered religious organizations, and the occasional politico. Each of the three major candidates running for Indiana governor were represented at the fairgrounds in some fashion. Democratic candidate John Gregg had a small two-seater table manned by one young, lonely aide. The name cards of Republican candidate Mike Pence shared a tent on the north side of the fairground, far and away from Expo Hall, along with name cards advertising his party’s senatorial nominee, Richard Mourdock.
The Libertarians’ gubernatorial candidate refused to settle for campaigning in absentia. That man chose to appear in person, running his own booth and explaining his positions live and in person to anyone who cared to stop by, no matter how ignominious the booth location. Even as he found himself surrounded by gutter-cover inventors, home-remedy purveyors, dip-mix testers, and senior citizens filling their pockets with fistfuls of free pens from assorted stands, the candidate stood tall and proud from amidst the hard-sell fray to make his presence known.
That man: Rupert Boneham from TV’s Survivor.
My wife and I have never watched a single episode of the show, but our local man Boneham has occupied enough headlines over the years that we’re hardly ignorant of his identity or achievements, even if his original claim to fame was reality TV. He had copies of his book for sale, cheerfully offered autographs free of charge (take THAT, Wizard World Chicago), and kept several stacks of political pamphlets in stock for voters to peruse and ponder before they have to decide who should replace outgoing Governor Mitch Daniels on Election Day.
I remain skeptical as to whether or not Boneham can overcome the stigma of eschewing the Big Two party monopoly, and follow the kind of career trail previously blazed by Jesse Ventura. Whatever happens, I doubt it’ll be boring. If he hasn’t already selected a running mate for the Lieutenant Governor position, I’d suggest our pal Posturing Cow for sheer attitude and value-added fuzziness. Such a win at the polls would be a true Year of the Dairy Cow, indeed.