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. At least, normally we attend every year. You can guess why there was no 2020 edition. Last year to cheer myself up over its temporary loss, I shared pics from a previous State Fair. The nostalgia was slightly therapeutic.
In fully functioning years, we’re all about the State Fair 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. Frankly, after this year’s experience, I can’t help feeling a bit jealous of those folks.
To the fair’s credit, this year’s special dishes were easier than ever to find, thanks to an overhauled app. A 2019 edition was never released, which made that year’s expedition all the more frustrating, and prior versions were hobbled and glitchy. The 2021 version was far more responsive and stable, and did indeed contain a handy Taste of the Fair map marking all their locations with high, if not perfect, accuracy. (One drink listed on their website was missing from the app; another was pinned on the wrong side of the street.) The app was a tremendous help in finding the special foods. The problems we had after that were not the app’s fault.
Naturally there was sugar, per our lead photo. The Deep-Fried Cini-Minis met every expectation — freshly battered and fried, sweet and gooey but with some of that interior breaded texture intact so it wasn’t like swallowing pure goop. The only minor issue was my disappointment when I learned their cores, touted as being cinnamon roll centers, were mini-cupcakes plucked ready-made from plastic packaging that could’ve come from a Kroger bakery table. I’d imagined them as a homemade concoction through-and-through, which is perhaps an unfair expectation and it’s my fault for pre-romanticizing them. Overall, though, not a bad pick for the fried-dessert fans out there.
Our day had begun hours earlier shortly after the fairground gates opened at 9 a.m. That’s later than previous years, but as with millions of other businesses nationwide here in the never-ending pandemic era, their business hours had changed. We wish we’d known that before we showed up at 8 a.m. on the dot and found zero cars in line and every ticket booth unmanned. Rather than drive through anyway and see if anyone tried to stop us, we retreated and found ways to pass the wasted hour. We doubled back to the nearest Walmart. We replaced our old bottle of sunscreen whose ingredients had at long last gone inert after a decade or more of dedicated service. We mourned the increasingly empty shopping mall down the street that had been a frequent backdrop in my childhood. We drove through an intersection where someone was murdered earlier this week. And so on.
Eventually the fair opened for real. I was starving and cranky by the time we arrived at the Dairy Bar, a beloved longtime fixture. We needed a small breakfast to tide us over until all the other food vendors opened. A few competitors serve breakfast as well, but among them only the Dairy Bar had any Taste of the Fair selections. And for 2021 they boasted four such specialties.
We’ve had highs and lows at the Dairy Bar in years past. The hottest tip I can give to first-time attendees is you have to hit the Dairy Bar early because after 11 a.m. their lines are an impenetrable, orderly mob for the rest of the day. Now we’ve learned you apparently also have to get there in the fair’s earlier days to have the full run of their menu. This time we attended three days before the end of the fair and two of their Tastes of the Fair had sold out days ago and were no longer available. We sighed and ordered the other two.
Anne’s choice beat mine, no contest.
One of my favorite purveyors is Red Frazier Bison, whose food truck is always parked on the northeast corner of the fairgrounds. It’s one of the farthest points from the activities and exhibit halls we tend to frequent, but usually worth the journey and always buffalo-centric. Some menu items have been past Taste of the Fair entrants. Their latest was bison steak fajitas, served with optional side cups of salsa and sour cream.
The bison itself was as tender as ever, but I faced a strategic problem. Red Frazier has no tables for customers, just a bunch of hay bales for seating. Assembling all these parts into a whole fajita — let alone three of them — while balancing the paper basket on my lap was tricky. Inevitably the first fajita squirted and dribbled juices all over my shorts, so I kept the second one plain, just meat on uncooked tortilla, and dipped it into the sauce cups. Anne took the third and final tortilla off my hands. We agreed, as we learned from Chopped and later in practice, that frying the tortillas also would’ve been a step up.
Their side dish, on the other hand, was one of the best bites I had all day: roasted Brussels sprouts. We’d come for the fair’s $3 Thursday specials (replacing the discontinued $2 Tuesdays of previous years) and cheerfully grabbed Red Frazier’s $3 deal on these. The last time we’d had Brussels sprouts was probably pre-pandemic.
Meanwhile in the fairgrounds’ northwest corner, another truck called Gobble Gobble joined the growing list of operators adding donut sandwiches to their repertoires. Often considered an abomination by healthy individuals who don’t attend fairs or carnivals, donut sandwiches can be a surprising blend of sweet and salty, sweet and spicy, or sweet and meaty. It also helps if you offset the sandwich’s astronomical calorie count by setting aside time later to jog twenty miles. Gobble Gobble tossed their hat into that ring with the BBQ Suga Momma, which is simply pulled pork BBQ on two donuts.
That’s it, that’s the dish. No toppings, no sauces, no dips, no veggies, no cheese or bacon. It’s a hearty meal for what it is, but it’s a bit unadorned and could’ve used some contrasts. All things considered, the barbecue sauce on the pork was also surprisingly mild, as if someone in management came down like, “Okay, but we want white farmers to eat it, so ease down the spice level.” I feel like they could’ve pushed harder and bolder on this.
By afternoon all the other meal-sized Taste of the Fair options were far away and I was nearly stuffed. Key word: “nearly”. Not far away from the pork donuts, I was tempted away from the whole TotF quest by a local Mexican eatery called Samano’s (two locations northeast of Indy) whose menu included elotes, better known in some corners as Mexican street corn. In recent times it’s become one of those side dishes Anne and I will order on sight, like fired-up Brussels sprouts or anything containing goat cheese.
For five bucks I expected a tiny Styrofoam bowl of Green Giant Niblets doused in cayenne powder. What I got was a full ear of corn slathered in a sumptuous crema and sprinkled with Tajin seasoning.
I was so enraptured, I ate it all without stopping and ended up with a Santa crema beard over my natural beard. Another funny thing: about 15-20 minutes later my energy level began picking up dramatically, despite the hours of walking and summertime sun and overeating. I think my body gravely needed a break from all those heavy proteins and overloaded sugars, and just needed something from any other food group for balance. As I picked up my pace and felt better, my whiny internal monologue was drowned out by the sound of the trumpet fanfare that would play whenever Popeye ate his spinach and his battleship bicep tattoos began firing their cannons at tiny imaginary foes. I’d needed that elotes.
For her part, Anne had been grazing on my scraps but was eventually ready for something substantial. She took advantage of another concession stand’s Thursday deal: one tenderloin slider for $3 or two for $5, savings on top of more savings.
Toward the end of our long day, I tried to add one last Taste of the Fair sample to my list of quote-unquote “accomplishments” for the year. On previous trips a stand called Goodwin’s Pork-N-More (out in front of the Indiana Arts Building) won me over with their curious pairings of pork dishes and extra fruity drinks. For 2021 they concocted a frozen treat called the Fruit Twister Paradise Pop, a popsicle containing five different fresh fruits. On this paper this sounded delightful. In reality, both their popsicle-making devices had broken and we were once again denied a Fair Taste. After hearing about some of their other woes in this troublesome year, I was okay with substituting a tall glass of their non-frozen Fruit Twister drink that sacrificed nary a fruit and hit the spot just as nicely.
I ended the day with disappointed doubts about whether the Taste of the Fair is worth prioritizing to such an overarching extent. If I can remember this lesson learned, next year the wiser approach would be to stop using the TotF roster as a hard checklist and instead prowl the fairgrounds booth by booth for new and awesome foods regardless of whether or not a governing body has deemed them worthy of marketing promotion. As a guy who’s made a practice of going to Artists Alleys at comic conventions in search of talented creators I don’t know and skipping the autograph booths of the “hot” names, you’d think I would approach State Fair food the same way. I need to adjust my levels on that.
While we’re on the subject of food, please enjoy these additional pics of other food-based sights we found along the way to round out this chapter and relieve the burdens off the other photo galleries yet to come.
Our last air-conditioned building of the day was Expo Hall, filled with all manner of business representatives, some selling creative wares and some angling for just a moment of your time that will exponentially become many, many minutes and thousands of dollars. Expo Hall was fun to visit as a kid back in the days when every booth gave away freebies and I was too young to be targeted by sales pitches. Today a crawl through its lineup of desperate Glengarry Glen Ross downsizing casualties is like walking into a living spam folder. This time was slightly less skeevy because a cool geek-merch company called the United States of Indiana sold me a Parks and Rec T-shirt, and another booth whose name we failed to catch sold us some fudge. Pleasant grace notes, both.
(Normally we’d brake for our old fudge handlers at the South Bend Chocolate Company, a popular staple at multiple fairground events every pre-COVID year, but they were conspicuously absent. We hope they’re doing okay out there in this messy era.)
To be continued! Other chapters in this very special MCC miniseries: