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 last year’s disappointingly non-food-based Year of the Coliseum, in honor of the longtime event venue that had reopened after a two-year closure for extensive renovations. This year’s theme was “the Year of the Farmer”, a.k.a. “the Year We Ran Out of Food Themes”. For anyone who thought “the Year of the Coliseum” wasn’t directionless enough, 2015 had only a handful of the many vendors offering a random, disconnected assortment of ostensibly new dishes, at least one of which was flat-out pretending to be new.
We tried to make the most of it anyway and found a few items worth actual dollars.
Anne and I visited the State Fair this year on one of their $2 Tuesdays, when most of the vendors have sales on their regular items, or in some cases reduced-portion versions of their normal fare. Pictured at top is the $2 Lamb Parfait sampler from Porkys BBQ, a booth that serves nothing but lamb despite their name. It looks like ice cream, but that’s diced lamb, mashed potatoes, and a fantastic barbecue sauce. I paced myself so I wouldn’t devour the whole thing in less than a minute, but it required a fair amount of willpower. Savoring is an uncommon skill among guys my size.
The Lamb Parfait wasn’t a contestant in the annual State Fair Signature Food contest; it was just an item I’d never tried before. We kept on the lookout for the Signature Foods all day, but I would’ve starved if I’d limited myself to eating only those. Case in point: in order to get through the first couple hours without snarling at people in rage-filled hunger, I started the morning with a quick breakfast at Tad’s Bodacious Burritos, one of the precious few tents that open before 10 a.m. and serve items I can’t just go home and cook for myself.
Their breakfast quesadilla was tempting, but I didn’t want to overstuff myself too early, so an order of tiny homemade biscuits-‘n’-gravy topped with a wee pile of eggs and shredded cheese did the trick. Anne and I are terrible at making homemade gravy. Lord knows we’ve both tried, but whatever talents we once possessed for it somehow vanished right after we quit McDonald’s.
Also open for breakfast is the fair’s famous Dairy Bar, the premiere HQ for milk and milk-based products. The Dairy Bar submitted two entries to the contest, the better of which was their S’mores shake, on sale for $2. Despite the dull photo, this marshmallow-flavored shake was deceptively yummy and came with a side of graham crumbs you could add for topping at any or every level at your leisure. I have no idea why it came without chocolate syrup, which seems like a no-brainer to me, but maybe the Dairy Bar knows something I don’t. Perhaps they’d run out the day before, or someone on the back line had a chocolate allergy.
Their other entry was the most questionable choice of the pack: a muenster grilled cheese sandwich on cinnamon raisin bread. Every time we mentioned this to anyone, the response was always a quizzical “Arooo?” expression like Scooby-Doo. I’m not sure what inspired this combo, but skillet-burnt raisins may just be the worst, bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted at any kind of fair ever. I tossed it out half-uneaten.
We had modest hopes for the Deep-Fried Sweet Corn, a $2 half-cob batter-dipped, fried, and ladled with Mexican butter. The spices in the breading and butter were all thumbs-up, but the batter lacked an adhesive ingredient and slid too easily off the corn. I wound up with a couple of batter squares lying in my paper dish that looked like chicken skin. If they can fix this single mechanical issue, this would be a winning side item.
If you’re not interested in the Signature Foods, scores of booths scattered across the 38 acres are happy to accommodate your mealtime or snacking needs. Not all of them are this loud and proud about it, but they do what they can to compete in this crowded culinary battlefield.
One intermission came from the South Bend Chocolate Company in the form of chocolate-covered bacon. They tasted more like thin Nestle Crunch bars than actual bacon. To be honest, even after breaking one open, I couldn’t prove there was meat inside. Didn’t care. Worked for me anyway, one of those salty/sweet combos that are all the rage these days, minus all that pesky bacon grease.
For the record, the 2015 Indiana State Fair Signature Food was called a “Smoked Pig Patty”. We ordered it expecting the greatest pork sandwich of all time. What we got was…a round pork patty on a standard white bun with zero toppings. We had to add our own barbecue sauce and pickles from their condiment stand. I’m not privy to all the inner workings of the Indiana State Fair Signature Food election process, the makeup of its voting body, or the security implemented to preserve the integrity of their tabulations. Maybe the judges thought the offerings from the other contestants were slight and pitiful and gonged every last one of them. For all I know, maybe they just draw a random name out of a “Kiss the Cook” chef’s hat. What I do know is that choosing the same old Indiana McRib they’ve been serving for decades as the quote-unquote “Signature Food” devalues what the label means to us, and tossed a wet blanket on our annual food-experiment date-day. If next year’s signature food is a plain hot dog, we’re out.
How’d it taste, you ask? Look: it’s pig on a bun. It’s hard to mess up. If your farm can get the pig into the right shape, chances are you can run it the rest of the way to home plate without getting tagged out. To make matters worse, the Lamb Parfait had much better sauce.
The Baskin Robbins stand also had an entry in the Signature Food contest, but we had to ask for it by name because they didn’t have a single sign advertising it. Anyone who didn’t read about it in the Indianapolis Star wouldn’t have known to ask for the Maple Walnut Waffle Sundae. As served, it just looked like a cup full of whipped cream. Beyond the Cool Whip barrier lay a stacked deck of actual mini-waffles (not waffle cone shards as I’d expected), walnuts, maple syrup, and a small scoop of vanilla ice cream as an inside garnish. It was too much sweetness for the average Chopped judge, but fans of syrupy, sugary sugarosity would’ve been pleased if they knew it existed.
The best bite of food I had all day had nothing to do with the whole Signature Food entanglement, which may or may not have been corrupted by outside influences from Big Pork. My favorite stop of the day — with or without edibles — was at a Caribbean food truck called Da Blue Lagoon.
Before we left later in the afternoon, I made a point of returning to the truck for an early supper of Calypso fried fish, served with optional jerk sauce. (I’m the one who got heavy-handed with the pouring. They’re blameless on that count.) The breading was lightly spicy and the whole thing was served fresh out of their tiny kitchen. The bun wasn’t exciting, but maybe Caribbean buns are cost-prohibitive for their purposes, or maybe there’s no such thing. Someone should check into this.
I returned there because earlier in the day they’d sold me the best-tasting State Fair morsel of the year: a $2 sampler containing one coconut shrimp, one fried plantain, and a few spoonfuls of red beans and rice. It was tiny but mighty — fresh, crispy, delicate, unbelievably flavorful. And those humble ounces of beans ”n rice had a wondrously ferocious kick of spice to them. Considering the pleasure I got for my $2, I felt like I’d ripped them off.
It’s kind of disappointing that the winner in my book probably had nary a thing to do with Indiana farmers, but…well. That’s where I landed. Fortunately the fairgrounds had plenty of other hopeful Hoosiery Hoosierness to compensate.
To be continued! Other chapters in this special MCC miniseries: