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 either nearly or formerly popular, and farm animals competing for cash prizes without their knowledge. 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. Each year a new lineup of “Taste of the Fair” offerings showcases new ideas from assorted food vendors in hopes of luring in foodies and/or impressing attendees who want to do more every year than simply eating the same tenderloin again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
This year’s edibles expedition had a couple of setbacks, but we made the most of our day anyway. For one, this year’s Indiana State Fair app failed me in the precisely one job I asked of it. The Map function was ostensibly designed with an option to pin the locations of any and all participating “Taste of the Fair” stands. I pressed the correct buttons and received zero (0) results. The option to show all restaurants worked fine but was unhelpful. By and large the State Fair’s vendors go by their boring, adjectiveless company names that describe none of their products and aren’t even featured on their signs. Perfect example: the official Taste of the Fair site lists two new items from a company called Urick Concessions, but hopeful diners could spend days wandering the fairgrounds searching in vain for “URICK CONCESSIONS” banners. Worse still, Urick has more than one booth. We found both items, but at separate booths on opposite ends of the fairgrounds. You’d never know any of this from that failed app.
Also complicating our day: rain throughout the early morning hours. We arrived in the fairgrounds parking lot at 8:15 to ensure we’d have a decent space, then waited in the car another 45 minutes till the exhibit halls opened and provided indoor activities to occupy our free time till all the food vendors opened at 10. A few places offer breakfast before 10, but only one of them was on the “Taste of the Fair” roster — the same place that sold me bitterly burned grilled cheese three years ago. So we fasted till 10.
By that time the rains continued but at a weaker pace. Fortunately one upstanding “Taste of the Fair” competitor opened on time and had seating space under tents. Shout-out to the Indiana Pork Producers Association for raising the bar high with my first dish, BBQ pork “potachoes” — li’l potatoes seasoned and topped with barbecue pulled pork, nacho cheese, salsa, sour cream, and jalapeños.
Anne doesn’t require her meals to be weird or groundbreaking, and was fine with indulging in a basic pork sandwich. Much of her day was more traditional fare like that. As long as she gets her hands on at least one lemon shake-up in a given fair day, she’s satisfied with her choices.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t full yet. A few hundred feet west of the Pork Producers, their comparatively upstart rivals at Pork-n-More, who’d won my heart two years earlier with a Fruit Tea Twister. This year’s signature item for them was called Piggy Popcorn — deep-fried pork cutlets in a sweet Hawaiian chili sauce. Smaller and not as spicy as I expected, but I can imagine people craving them.
Once we finished perusing the usual exhibit halls around the southwest corner and the rains had gone away to come again some other day, we migrated north to the other side of the fairgrounds, where a couple dozen food booths line the main straightaway. ‘Round those parts we located the Gobble Gobble truck that featured the Turkey Tips in our lead photo. The sauce was tangier and more tantalizing than the first two dishes, but I learned the hard way that turkey tips are 80% bone. I gnawed a few choice bits of cooked flesh off the bones, then had to settle for sucking sauce off the rest without inhaling a choking hazard.
The “Taste of the Fair” features more food than drink. Among those few drinks on this year’s list was the Peach Cider Slushie, which tasted fine and filled a need, but in hindsight I’m annoyed because a few minutes ago I reviewed our records and realized it was a rerun from last year.
Another form of sugar was livelier and carried no regrets after the fact: dessert nachos! Crispy wedges from the churro/fried-ice-cream family topped with ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and Reese’s Pieces. Again I settled for a $2 Tuesday portion, but I would’ve been fine with three times as much if I hadn’t needed to save rooms for other foods.
On the northeast corner of the fairgrounds is Red Frazier Bison, a highlight of nearly every year and every “Taste of the Fair” lineup. I say “nearly” because they’ve had a history of selling out of new items before we could reach their distant cranny. Their entire menu of bison-based dishes aims squarely for the discriminating culinary fan, and this year’s addition was no exception: bison rangoon. The filling included cream cheese as well as a sweet corn puree. It wasn’t quite as luxurious as crab rangoon, for which Anne and I will brake hard at any given takeout joint, but it was a savory sensation worth considering in its own right.
Afternoon wore on and the summer sun had cooked away the rains, returning to its natural state of scalding, dehydrating, and taunting us on our long State Fair walk. In a moment of middle-aged weakness we shelled out a couple of bucks to hop a shuttle back to the south end of the ‘grounds so we’d have strength left to walk the remaining stretch of comestible carriers. My last big sugar fix of the day fell in the time-honored fair-food category of Deep Fried Snacks. One of the best new entries in years, the Deep-Fried Sugar Cream Pie pretty much tells you everything you need to know up front. Its name is a label for both ingredients and warning. It’s a bit of a sugar bomb, but both the outer batter and the interior pie crust were solid rather than soggy, quite the textural achievement.
We ran out of activities and energy by late afternoon, but I fetched one last item to-go, for science. Behold a Deep Fried Chicken and Waffle Sandwich, topped with powdered sugar and pancake syrup. We carefully transported it home and stuck it in the fridge while I napped for the next few hours.
Shout-out to some of 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 eleven days:
- Lemonade Strawberry Boba Twister — From the makers of the Piggy Popcorn, a shakeup with bubble tea gel-balls. My first experience with boba tea wasn’t rewarding, so I passed.
- Green Chili Beef Meatballs — Never saw them.
- Gourmet Tater Tots — Pretty much the “potachoes” but with tater tots instead of small potatoes.
- The Dilly Dilly — They stuffed a hot dog inside a pickle, then dipped the pickle in corn dog batter and deep-fried it. By the time we spotted their booth at the end of our day, it didn’t sound appealing to me anymore.
- Bubba’s Bacon Grilled Cheese — a grilled cheese sandwich wrapped edge-to-edge in bacon strips. That sounded like too much bacon for my blood, and the ten-dollar price tag was too rich for it.
…and the largest and most outrageous of them all, the Waybetter Strawberry Milkshake. There was a particularly nonsensical episode of Worst Cooks in America in which the contestants were tasked with making mixed drinks with large solid objects perched on top for reasons never made clear to me except “this is a hugely popular trend in some city none of us live in.” Here, replace the artisan booze with a strawberry milkshake adorned with Fruity Pebbles, two cupcakes, a sponge cake, a lollipop, and some obligatory strawberries and whipped cream for misplaced sense of normalcy. All on one “drink”.
We found the Polar Bear Ice Cream stand easily enough, across from the Department of Natural Resources Building. I looked at the picture and knew I couldn’t handle it and shouldn’t try. I would’ve had to skip all other meals for the day and possibly the next three days after. I didn’t bother asking about the price, which wasn’t listed on their menu and couldn’t possibly have been single-digit. Granted, the dishes I ate for the rest of the day totaled to a significant amount in themselves, but I prefer grazing on a relatively diverse foodie-crawl over blowing my entire day on a single fruit-pile juggernaut.
Anne gave them money but settled for something a bit more simple — a soft-serve black raspberry ice cream cone. She did not try the super-shake because she is not a family of five.
…and that’s Taste of the Fair 2018 from where we stood, fed, and went home bloated and dead on our feet.
More Indiana State Fair photos now online! Other chapters in this year’s special MCC miniseries: