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. On Thursdays they have “$3 Thursday” specials, for which every food vendor joins in the sale with at least one item for that price, whether it’s a smaller portion of an existing item or a chintzy, non-special soft drink. Above and beyond that, each year a new lineup of “Taste of the Fair” offerings showcases new ideas from assorted stands in hopes of luring in foodies and/or impressing attendees who want to do more every year than simply eating the same corn dog again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The lineup is announced weeks in advance so everyone can plan their meals and experiments accordingly. Every year, some vendors are more ambitious than others — arguably even more so this year, mired as we are in the current inflationary era where gambling on new products can kill your bottom line if you’re not careful. But at least some tried.
Whenever I mentioned our imminent State Fair plans to anyone, the responses all swerved toward the same question: “Are ya gonna try the pickle pizza?” In all our circles it was the talk of the town. Swain’s Concessions, whose holdings include a pizza stand up by the 4-H Building, came up with this latest variation on cheese pizza — ranch sauce instead of anything tomato-based, seasoned generously with dill, and blatantly topped with pickle slices. That’s it, that’s the whole pizza. But it was among the few Taste of the Fair options that felt as though someone tried to think outside the box, as opposed to doing laps around the inside of the box, or expanding into a second box that was just a copy of the first box. Swain’s took a risk, and it paid off with the competition’s highest vote-getter from attendees.
If you can’t fathom pizza without a tomato-based sauce, this might not be for you. If you’re a fan of white pizza variations, this one isn’t bad. The ranch flavor isn’t overbearing, the dill tastes subtler than it looks, and the pickles survived the process. For cheese pizza in general, it fit the bill. Neither mind-blowing nor offensive, though the $10 price tag was not endearing and made it the most expensive item I sampled.
Price tag was a factor in cutting one hopeful entree off the to-do list. On the north end of the fairgrounds east of the Farm Bureau Building, Black Leaf Vegan came up with vegan nachos that I’d been looking forward to, but only sold them in $15 full-plate family servings. Even if they’d been magnificent, I didn’t want any foods in that quantity. The point of our annual grazing is a wide variety, not a single-booth monopoly on my stomach, which does have its limits, as we’d reconfirm later in the day.
Our first run-up to some Taste of the Fair treats led to a dead end. The Dairy Barn, that stalwart fixture of many a family’s State Fair experience, advertised two such creations for 2022: a Thin Mint milkshake based on the Girl Scout cookie, and an unremarkable quesadilla I’d expected to skip anyway. As of Thursday morning at 9:10 a.m. they were out of both, and had removed them from their menus. The Dairy Barn has disappointed us on multiple occasions to point that The Annual Dairy Barn Fail has become a running gag for us despite our hopes to the contrary.
Next stop was more successful, though not without some struggle. On the west end of the Harvest Pavilion I found the Pretzel Nacho Bites — exactly like nachos, except the tortilla chips were replaced with pretzel bites, exactly as the name promises. The staff hit a snag when their aging nacho cheese dispenser hadn’t been turned on yet, wouldn’t turn on, and refused to trigger after they coaxed the power on. Three employees’ worth of rattling and shaking wires finally got some cooperation out of it and the cheese flowed forth, though it wasn’t the least bit warmed up. The young lady at the register apologized for the technical difficulties, which is fine. We used to be in the restaurant biz ourselves and know a thing or two about crappy equipment. As of this writing, the cheese temperature compromise that I accepted hasn’t gotten me sick yet.
A few doors down, Anne indulged her sweet tooth with some soft-serve strawberry pineapple ice cream. She isn’t beholden to the quest and sometimes buys normal foods because she can. She’s funny that way. A small cone was also their $3 Thursday special, though they mistakenly gave her a medium cone but didn’t gouge her extra for their own error. Very nice of them.
We checked out a few exhibit halls, then returned next door to the same booth, where sweet corn sellers had branched out from the standard corn-on-cob format with some Mexican sweet corn in a cup. It wasn’t a large serving, but it didn’t need to be. The creamy sauce, powdered cheese and spices evenly distributed themselves downward into the cup so the last bites at the bottom wouldn’t be like undressed Del Monte leftovers.
After a bit more nearby shopping, we took a free shuttle over to the north side, found the pickle pizza, then continued our trek on foot toward the northeast corner. By this time Anne needed some solid lunchtime protein and, once again like a norm, visited the Indiana Pork Producers tent for one of their classic staples, the boneless pork sandwich. They too offered a Taste of the Fair side dish, but far as we could tell, all they did was rename one of their Taste of the Fair dishes from a previous year.
For her side dish of choice, we skipped over to Red Frazier Bison, the fair’s longtime prime purveyor of all things bison-tastic. Anne wanted an encore presentation of one of our favorite bites from last year — not the bison, but their roasted Brussels sprouts. Yes, we’re that old.
While we were at Red Frazier anyway, I decided to try the $3 Thursday version of their own Taste of the Fair candidate, a bison lettuce wrap. Going full-price gets you three such wraps topped with ginger, carrot, sweet onion, water chestnut, soy, and a side of hoisin sauce. For $3 you got a wad of lettuce and two spoonfuls of bison filling topped with flecks.
We retreated back to the west, and walked and walked and walked and eventually got back to the northwest corner of the fairgrounds, where some of the best stands gather. We stopped at one booth for two more Taste of the Fair contestants, starting with a Peach Shake-Up. Anne is big on fruity flavors and was curious to see this variation on Lemon Shake-Ups, that celebrated fair-food classic. The finished product wasn’t strongly peach-colored, but I can vouch for the flavor, which was authentically, pleasingly peach.
At the same booth: deep fried cheese on a stick! At face value it sounds like we surrendered and drove to Olive Garden, but no. It is a cheese stick, but coated in corn dog batter. I didn’t expect a revolutionary taste, but I appreciate this first step toward humankind answering the unspoken question, “Can we put corn dog batter on anything besides hot dogs? Or even longer hot dogs?” What else might future fair-food chefs try dipping in corn dog batter and frying? Shrimp? Steaks? Brussels sprouts? The mind reels at the possibilities.
My next stop was a tactical error. A few booths down, too easy for me to reach, one of those stands that specialize in deep-frying every snack food ever finally decided to cross brownies off their project list. And thus I felt compelled to see how deep-fried brownies might turn out. Curiously, despite the powdered sugar on top, the brownie centers tasted no sweeter than the batter coating itself. I expected sugar bombs, but somehow these tasted a tad moderated. Not that I’m complaining about the taste in and of itself.
I’d love to be more complimentary about these, but their sheer density added up. I also hadn’t expected such a large serving size. Two or three might’ve been fine at this weight (a single $3 Thursday brownie would’ve been great), but they gave us an entire six-pack. Four brownies in, I got yellow-alert signals from my body and protests from the voices in my head. All systems agreed: like it or not, I was done and couldn’t take any more. Anne helped finish off the rest, because these weren’t cheap and couldn’t be packed into any of our bags without turning our other purchases gloppy and disgusting. Too bad we never bring Tupperware to the fair. (Too bad there also isn’t a Tupperware stand at Expo Hall anymore like there used to be, either. More on that later.)
Our final food purchase before takeoff wasn’t for ourselves, but for my son. Our personal closing ceremonies for every State Fair trip always include a stop for shish-kabobs, which keep very nicely and warmly in foil for the return trip to our side of Indianapolis.
While we’re on the subject of food anyway, please enjoy a few bonus tangents, starting with the winners of the annual Giant Pumpkin Contest on display at the AgHort Building. We never watch the judging live or keep track of winners (though I do recall the year when one finalist was also a locally famous hard-rock DJ), but it’s wild to see Indiana’s Largest Foods lain before us.
Once again the AgHort Building also hosted a Taste of Indiana shop for folks to buy a limited supply of groceries from local farmers — candies, sauces, chips, popcorn, coffees, sausages, and more, more, more. We grabbed a few for our pantry.
Our favorite AgHort Building tradition is the annual cheese sculpture. Once again sculptor Sarah Kaufmann created Art from 200 pounds of her favorite solid dairy medium, this time in keeping with this year’s overall State Fair theme, an Indy 500 salute called “Fun at the Speed of Summer”. I think calling it “The Year of Speed” would’ve better fit the naming template of previous years’ themes, but I concede it might also have created an unrealistic expectation of deep-fried amphetamine stands everywhere.
To be continued! Other chapters in this very special MCC miniseries: