It’s that time again! The Indiana State Fair is an annual celebration of Hoosier pride, farming, food, and 4-H, with amusement park rides and big-ticket concerts by musicians that other people love. My wife and I attend each year as a date-day to seek new forms of creativity and imagination within a local context. Usually, 70% of our quest is food.
Each year the State Fair announces the annual theme of a single ingredient and holds a contest daring all the vendors to create a new dish around it, like a sort of Food Network cooking show except I think the grand prize is just “for exposure”. Recent history has brought us the Year of the Tomato, the Year of Corn, the Year of Soy, the Year of Popcorn, and so on. This year’s theme was the disappointingly non-food-based Year of the Coliseum, in honor of the longtime event venue that reopened this year after a two-year closure for major, modernizing renovations. Some reverence is to be expected for the Pepsi Coliseum as an integral part of the fairground experience for many attendees. Just the same, this break from thematic tradition left the vendors a bit directionless and less inspired to whip up new concoctions for us. We managed to find a couple.
Meet the donut that killed me.
Wait, no, let me back up: let’s start with the tactical error before that one.
Our first action upon arrival: we tried the annual Future Farmers of America pancake breakfast, a time-honored tradition we’d never tried before because we’ve never been to the State Fair on a Wednesday. It’s all-you-can-eat pancakes and unlimited drinks for three bucks per person. This generous FFA fundraiser is the cheapest buffet in the world. We figured why not give it a try. They also offered beef sausage patties and pork sausage links. (The links were better — less dry and chewy.)
Unless you protested quickly enough, the kindly pancake-flippers on duty handed each person a plate with three pancakes. Seeing my size, they gave me four without asking. It was too early in the morning for me to accuse him of profiling, and to challenge his wrong assumption, but I moved on silently due to coffee withdrawal. We appreciated the severe discount nonetheless and ate in peace. But we both knew not to go back for seconds, cheap or not. We needed to leave room for the new State Fair food on our agenda.
The Indiana State Fair is no small occasion. Streets’ worth of vendors offer a smorgasbord of food, drinks, snacks, and some inedible merchandise such as souvenirs, cowboy hats, vintage photos, backyard sheds, and more. We’re not really there to spend money on home improvement or stuff with “Indiana” logos on it.
In the middle of that row was our next food stop, which came much too soon. It was the home of a new, deadlier class of snack: the Giant Amish donut. I’d heard it was large. I didn’t know it would be the size of a tire. Gourmets had their choice of a buttery glaze, cinnamon sugar, or both if you were feeling especially courageous.
No average human could eat the entire thing and live. I’m not sure most couples could tag-team one of these without fasting for a few days first. Maybe you could goad Adam Richman from Man v. Food to gulp it down as an appetizer. It was soft, fluffy, fresh, and so warm that the glaze melted all over it, splashed off the paper plate, and formed several sticky spots on my clothes. It didn’t help that the stand had no forks or knives, forcing us to steal a set from another vendor. If only we had brought a cooler or a backpack with us to transport the rest of its sloppy, uneaten pounds home after I gave up partway through. The donut killed my appetite for quite a while and turned me off sugar-coated starches for the rest of the day.
Fortunately the expansive State Fairground provides visitors with plenty to see and miles to walk, all the better to burn a few of those calories while you’re there. As we digested, we found food on display to tide us over.
Here’s another tradition: the annual cheese sculpture! The same artist comes in each year and spends several days carving a new work of art on site.
The nearby Ag-Hort Building houses the winners of every year’s annual biggest-vegetable contests. Behold the winning Great Pumpkin, weighing in at 1,199.0 pounds. Just think of all the human-sized pies you could bake with this.
Compared to MegaPumpkin, this three-pound tomato may seem like Ant-Man to its Galactus, but it was a prime contender in its category.
Many blocks’ worth of walking later, a fraction of my appetite returned, allowing me to sample one of the year’s more heavily publicized creations: Cheeseburger on a Stick. When I first heard the name, I’d formed the mental image of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese dipped in batter and fried whole, something that would make J. Wellington Wimpy stand up and salute.
Actual results varied from my lofty expectations:
Beef, cheese, and hash browns wadded up into nuggets and deep-fried till crunchy. They cried out for toppings or dips. They were okay, but they weren’t a meal.
After more walking and more time passage, I figured more meat was in order. The one stand that usually creates the craziest burgers (donut burgers, ice cream burgers, etc.) had no new offerings, and I’d heard of no other new main courses that weren’t holdovers from previous years. Frustrated, for a late lunch I settled for something else I’d never had at the State Fair before: an ordinary, average Philly cheesesteak.
…meh. It was no Penn Station.
Still more walking commenced. We ran out of things to do much sooner than I anticipated. Alas, I hadn’t left enough room for a fun-flavored funnel cake. I looked at their booth, but all I could see was a ghostly mental afterimage of the Giant Amish Donut, cackling and relishing the damage it had done to my culinary enthusiasm.
Our local paper had touted the red velvet variety, but cookies-‘n’-cream sounded more interesting to me. By this time the debate was purely academic. Better luck to us and them next year, then.
To be continued!
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Other chapters in this MCC miniseries: