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, cooking demos, concerts by musicians that other people love, and farm animals competing for cash prizes and herd bragging rights. My wife and I attend each year as a date-day to seek new forms of creativity and imagination within a local context. At least 70% of our quest is always food.
This year the State Fair tried something different. Instead of asking vendors to create a new dish based on a particular ingredient or theme, they threw down the gauntlet and announced an open competition in which contestants would introduce a new dish of their design without limitations. We, the Eaters at Home, get to vote on which dish is best. This free-wheeling cook-off is intended as part of the Hoosier State’s year-long bicentennial celebration, marking Indiana’s date of statehood in December 1816. And what’s a party without good food?
Anne and I showed up bright ‘n’ early this morning to take advantage of the State Fair’s annual $2 Tuesday specials. Unfortunately not too many vendors were open before 9 a.m., so we had to start modestly. Early birds and the elderly can always count on the Dairy Bar to be open for business. Their submission: the “Smokin’ Hot on Rye Bread” — a grilled cheese sandwich made with Sriracha Jack and cheddar cheeses.
The spice level took a few bites to build up, a bit suppressed by the cheddar tang so it wasn’t damaging to me by the time I reached the last bite. I could tell the sandwich wasn’t freshly grilled and had been prepared in advance, but it was good enough for an opening act.
The Dairy Bar’s other contest entry: an all-new, perfectly serviceable peanut butter shake. Naturally they nailed it. Dessert is what they do. Not exactly outside the box, mind you.
An assortment of main dishes awaited us at other vendors. Every year we can count on at least one new, unholy creation from the Doughnut Burgers stand. I can vouch for basic donut burgers, which combine sweetness and saltiness in just the right proportions for one harmonious bite. Once those became yesterday’s news, they branched out into other options.
This year’s most grotesque monstrosity is the Double Barrel Burger — two bacon cheeseburger patties stacked between three Krispy Kreme donuts like a sort of Frankenstein’s Big Mac, then topped with macaroni ‘n’ cheese for value-added sauciness and carbs. Health-conscious daredevils can have them add lettuce, tomato, onion, or pickle and pretend that the extra food group somehow negates calories. I presume it’s called the Double Barrel Burger because it’s about as nutritious as a shotgun to the chest.
Plastic fork and knife are provided, both a must unless you can unhinge your jaw. If you can, please don’t show me because that would be gross. I carved out a few bites from the bottom stack and then toppled it like a lumberjack, which may be the only profession that could work off a meal like this. Let’s face it: if you accept that donut burgers should exist, then doubling the portions and adding a thicker form of cheese substance is not entirely an illogical step. A potentially fatal step, sure. Regardless, I’m sure their top burger scientists, emboldened by this slippery-slope success, already have larger, more mutated offerings in the pipeline for future state fairs.
At $15 a pop it’s possibly the most expensive meal at the State Fairgrounds and not something I’d care to eat annually or even a second time. To us this one lapse in judgment was an investment for food science journalism. In my defense, I spent a lot of the rest of the day walking this off. As of this evening my legs ache from thigh to toe, but at least I’m not dead yet.
Much later in the day, Anne and I each tried a smaller, lighter contestant: a Lamb Taco Lettuce Wrap, brought to you by the one stand over by the Coliseum that always has the best lamb dishes every year. This gluten-free delight has spiced ground lamb topped with shredded cheese, lettuce and tomato (those health-nut go-to toppings again!), and sour cream, which Anne forwent.
The lamb is hard to see under all those condiments. The buried portion was generous, and the sour cream balanced out the spices, but all that filling proved impossible to lift the lettuce casing and eat it by hand. Fork-‘n’-knife to the front lines once more.
Full disclosure: the Lamb Taco Lettuce Wrap was a backup choice, an alternate in the event that one of my top-tier options didn’t work out. Sadly, that very thing happened. There’s a stand on the northeast corner of the fairgrounds that specializes in bison dishes, whose contest entry was Bison Cheesesteak Egg Rolls. Sounds scrumptious, right? I’d been looking forward to it for days and talked it up with coworkers. We arrived at their stand on the far corner of the fairgrounds at 3:45 — the one and only reason we walked all the way over there — and learned to my regret that they were sold out of Bison Cheesesteak Egg Rolls for the rest of the day, but that they’d totally have more on Wednesday. That does us precisely no good. That’s a big fat disappointed zero-score for the bison biz. Advantage: lamb stand.
(If appetite had permitted after that, I might’ve tried another stand’s “Slaw-B-Q”, a slaw-topped barbecue sandwich. I’ve tried and liked that simple yet effective team-up in other states, but I’d be curious to see the State Fair’s take on it.)
A couple of vendors entered side items into the contest, including BBQ pulled pork beer cheese fries and mac-‘n’-cheese nachos. I never saw the booths peddling those, but I did try another side called Athens Fries — standard French fries topped with Greek dressing, feta cheese, and kalamata olives, with a pepperoncini on the side.
Pictured above is the miniature portion for $2 Tuesdays; normally they’re larger for $8. The Greek angle was fine by me except they went too sparing on the Greek dressing. They also offer Sparta Fries, which uses spicy feta instead of the usual. If I were attending the fair a second time this year, I’d give it a chance.
It wouldn’t be the Indiana State Fair without drinks, because it’s in August and without drinks everyone would dehydrate and die and spark lawsuits. We each tried a contest entry. Mine came from a booth that sold pork products and mixed-fruit drinks in equally hearty portions. Maybe next year they can hybridize their product lines and offer a dish fit for a Hawaiian luau.
The Fruit Tea Twister combines strawberry, pineapple, lemon, orange, tea, and Splenda. All the fruit is juiced while you watched, none of them from cartons or prepared weeks in advance. I can’t speak for the tea, but I’m taking it on faith that it was brewed same-day.
I’m not usually a fan of sugary fruit drinks, any drink saturated in sugar or fructose or other carb-errific forms. I ordered it small, and the guy behind the counter joked that I’d obviously never tried it before. Most of its fans apparently order large. I smiled at this moment of sales hyperbole. Then I tasted it and realized I couldn’t argue. It wasn’t sickly sweet as I dreaded it might be, and the negotiated union between tea and fruits didn’t allow for one flavor to overpower the rest. Somehow they’d joined forces like Voltron lions into a powerful super-fruit-drink. I wanted more. Before we left the fair, I made that happen.
Anne, on the other hand, is all about fruit drinks at fairs and carnivals. A lemon shake-up is on her must-list every time. Later in the day, having met her lemon shake-up quota before noon, she branched out and tried another drink from the Taste of the Fair roster, a Strawberry Pineapple Icey. I understand it was fine for what it was. The fun part was watching the addition of the whipped cream on top by a 6-year-old helper girl behind the cart working with Mommy at her grown-up lemonade stand.
“WHAT ABOUT DEEP-FRIED FOODS?” too many of you are screaming by now. Stop yelling. Best for last, and all that. Everyone knows the king of fried foods at the Indiana State Fair is this famous booth, bringing the deep-fried Oreos, deep-fried Snickers, deep-fried butter, and whatnot. If you’ve been to the Indiana State Fair and haven’t tried one of their fat-tastic desserts, then I assume you have health issues, because otherwise I don’t even get why you’re there.
They have competitors in other sections of the fairgrounds who try to keep a hand in the fried-snack game. Posers gonna pose. Witness this entry from across the way, a deep-fried S’more. The name alone sounds fabulous, right?
Ideally you’d take a fully constructed S’more — i.e., marshmallow and Hershey bar between two graham crackers — dip it in batter, fry it, eat it, and die happy. I wish you’d been there to do that for me. The assembly and frying, I mean, not the dying. I’m not that bitter about the results.
No, their version just deep-fries two batter-dipped jumbo marshmallows the size of billiard balls, tosses them in a serving basket, then tops them with drizzled chocolate syrup, a smattering of graham cracker crumbs, and plenty of powdered sugar, which is not a S’more ingredient. If you like all those foods individually and have a sweet tooth of infinite capacity, you might treasure the deep-fried S’more a lot more than I did. Marshmallows aren’t my favorite thing, so upping their proportions to compose 90% of the total snack mass grossed me out. And I say this as a guy who just confessed to eating an eight-inch-tall Homer Simpson midnight dinner. I offered it to Anne, who tried a piece of the breading alone and decided she’d had her fill. Together we left it half-unfinished and moved on.
Thankfully the better fried-snack stand saved the day with the tastiest dessert and the prettiest presentation of the day: deep-fried birthday cake pops.
Birthday cake has been boring to me for years. At our younger relatives’ birthday parties I’ll accept ice cream but beg off the cake if given the choice. Ice cream cakes are the smart way to sidestep the issue, especially for my own birthday. But by reducing the portion size, then battering and frying it, it was like a reawakening to cake, a window to a horizon of new possibilities in the land of cake that I’d thought was dead to me forever.
Fried cake pops were awesome, highly recommended 10/10 would eat again if I can finish burning off the calories from the Double Barrel Burger before next year’s State Fair.
To be continued!