Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
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 Anne and I attend each year as a date-day to seek new forms of creativity and imagination within a local context. Usually we’re all about the food.
…and so we were, for as long as we had room to fit in more food. My biggest regret is that we aren’t athletic enough to have needed eight thousand calories a day and therefore couldn’t try all of this year’s new “Taste of the Fair” dishes offered by various vendors around the fairgrounds. Heck, we weren’t even done trying all of 2016’s new dishes.
Pictured above is one of the simplest of this year’s new fare. Simply deep-fry the bacon, maybe with a wisp of flour, or maybe not — couldn’t tell for sure. Top with barbecue sauce; sell only in half-pound or one-pound portions. End of recipe. A half-pound of bacon is a bit much for a single snack, but two or three of these atop a burger would’ve made for a solid lunch.
We like to visit the State Fair on a Tuesday every year because that’s when most vendors offer $2 specials and admission is always $2. Tuesdays get more crowded and increasingly impassable as the day goes on, so we had to arrive shortly after 8 a.m. just to ensure decent parking. Unfortunately very few vendors open before 10 a.m. except for a couple of home-cooked breakfast trailers (generally top-notch) and the Dairy Bar, a long-running Americana salute to every Dairy Barn, Dairy Hut, or other mom-‘n’-pop ice cream joint you can find in five out of every four Indiana small towns above a certain size. They open early, they’re located next to our usual entrance, and they had two new ideas on the “Taste of the Fair” list.
Easiest to acquire were the “root beer float shakes”. Basically they’re shakes flavored like root beer. Given that shakes contain ice cream or an ice cream-ish base, the “float” modifier seemed redundant. It tastes like it sounds.
Their other 2017 foodie attraction was a Mousetrap Grilled Cheese, containing Havarti, cheddar, and Colby jack cheese on one sandwich. Or so we heard. The cashier informed us that was the only item not yet available because they were “waiting on the cheese”. I was disappointed, but I pressed on anyway. Instead I ordered their sausage/egg/cheese biscuit sandwich, which sounded like a great down-home breakfast full of heartland goodness…till they handed it to me in a Jimmy Dean wrapper. It was the same kind you can buy in bulk from any local grocer’s freezer and warm up when you’re in a hurry for work. I ate them for years. That’s not fair food. At all.
After that time two years ago when they served me a burnt sandwich, the Dairy Bar is hereby ON NOTICE.
Much of our day was spent chasing down main dishes at various booths blocks away from each other. The distance gives us opportunity to walk off a fraction of the calories and gives us a way to pass some time between feedings. We also looked at exhibits here and there, which we’ll share in future chapters. But if you go in planning to eat ten consecutive items and then call it day, that plan’s not workable. I confess to one strategic error: I had so many savory dishes early on that I left no room for desserts. At all. I had to settle for buying some candies from our stalwart providers at the South Bend Chocolate Company, who surely make a tidy annual profit selling large quantities of take-home snacks to regretful overeaters.
One dish was pretty creative but had a fatal serving flaw. The Corn Dog Split took a basic, already yummy corn dog, split it in half, then topped it with mac-‘n’-cheese, chili, and jalapenos. I can’t believe no one’s thought of it before, but the next restaurateur who tries it should buy a better class of plastic fork. Theirs were stubby, blunt, and couldn’t cut through the thick corn dog shell.
The buffalo chicken gyro takes your standard chicken gyro and adds an obvious twist. At $11 it was the most expensive dish we tried, but it was doused in about fifteen bucks’ worth of tzatziki sauce. No need to worry about that buffalo spice when the fire is all but extinguished.
Anne prefers a more traditional approach to her fair-food experience. She was hoping for something slightly different but not too different. Two of her mandatory State Fair staples were easy acquisitions: a Lemon Shake-up (which one stand helpfully had as a $2 special) and a caramel apple. The quest for her main dish took longer than expected. Our first sign of a Plan A was a booth far off the main stretch called the Fish Hut, where the $2 special was a 4-ounce fried pollock. As of noon it was also the longest line we’d seen up to that point. After a few minutes we gave up and moved on.
Much farther down the road was her eventual salvation: brisket sliders! Small on the outside but crammed with meaty goodness on the inside, and served on Hawaiian rolls, one of the greatest breads known to humankind.
We’d brought bottled waters with us from home to forestall spending money on beverages for as long as possible, much as we do for our comic conventions. Out in the summertime heatstroke season those won’t stay cold all day. When I succumbed to the temptation of drinks, the first winner was a Peach Cider Slushie, an odd choice when you realize peach-flavored products are more Anne’s thing than mine. Maybe it was the threat of thirst fatality talking, but this was way better than water.
Once upon a time the good Samaritans at Red Frazier Bison joined the fun at the State Fair with only a tiny white trailer, a couple of signs, and the best bison recipes in a fifty-square-mile radius. They’ve since upgraded to a full-on food truck with more space, an expanded menu, and the same level of awesomeness. They’re usually parked on the northeast corner of the fairgrounds, far from all the popular non-farm attractions, so their wares necessitate a bit of trekking.
I ordered the wrong item from their menu and therefore did not get to try their 2017 “Taste of the Fair” contribution, their Dirty Hippie Tots — tater tots topped with fried Brussels sprouts, cheese, specially prepared hot green onions, and hot sauce. I instead wound up with the Dirty Tots, which replace the Brussels sprouts with ground bison. 12/10, would order by accident again, I’m fine with my slip of the tongue.
Red Frazier Bison also let us make up for one of last year’s letdowns. When last we left our heroes, they’d sold out of their 2016 signature dish before we could reach them. This year we were in luck and they were in stock: bison cheesesteak eggrolls. Bison and veggies fried in wonton wrappers and topped with sweet chili sauce, they were one of the best bites of my day.
Shout-out to the other “Taste of the Fair” signature creations we missed this year, which others among you might try if you’re in Indianapolis within the next nine days:
* The Cattlemen’s Choice — a ribeye sandwich piled with smoked brisket. A meat-topped meat sandwich is Peak State Fair, and quite an achievement if neither meat is bacon.
* Deep Fried PB&J — never saw their booth. The lone review left on the Indiana State Fair’s official app said it was pretty much like a Smucker’s Uncrustable.
* Mini Funnel Cake Strawberry Shortcake — by the time we found them, I had no room left and Anne doesn’t like funnel cakes.
* Traditional Egg Cream — in name only, no actual raw eggs used due to 21st-century health nervousness. We understand the results were mere cream sodas with an old-fashioned misnomer. We’re not yet old enough to find this appealing.
* Peanut Butter Pineapple Pork Burger — pork sandwich topped with peanut butter and pineapple. Every Hoosier I mentioned this to had the same reaction: a scrunched-up expression and the word “Why?”
By 2:00 I was stuffed and wouldn’t stand another bite for the next several hours, well after we’d left for the day. Our final purchase wasn’t for us, but for my son waiting at home. For his sake we got a pair of juicy pork kabobs to go, both of which were still warm when we got home despite horrendous traffic patterns doubling our drive time. It wasn’t quite the same as being there in person, but I didn’t hear any complaints from him except he would’ve like much, much more.
To be continued!