It's that time of year. You know, the time when people dye chickens pink to support breast cancer research. It's the season for airbrushed T-shirts; getting a new, vaguely pornographic slogan plate for the back of your truck; and of course, eating your way to a roundness that recalls the Venus of Willendorf. Or maybe that's just me?
Believe you me, I'm not at the Champlain Valley Fair for the rides. I've done that. But each year, there's something new and wonderful (depending on your definition) to consume at the fair. Below are this year's highlights.
As I did my first walk-around, I was shocked to learn that Fat Daddy's was no longer offering its popular "pork boners" along with its signature onion rings and mammoth turkey legs. An employee told me that the cost of the mini shanks meant little profit. So they added a new item instead.
Meet the tornado dog. The $6 item is composed of two hot dogs skewered end to end, wrapped in ribbons of potato, then fried.
If you're wondering how to eat the creation, I can't help you. It's not easy. But if you're in the market for chips and a hot dog, together at last, this dish is for you. I especially enjoyed the sprinkle of butter and garlic powder on mine, one of a range of choices, including cheddar or spicy powders.
But the greatest wiener innovation came from the Piggy Bar, a 66-year-old booth, in the form of the Octo-Dog.
These eight-legged critters have long been a staple of Japanese kids' bento box lunches. But those sausages are boiled, not fried. The flavor of these crisp little cephalopods transported this Connecticut girl to Norwalk's Swanky Franks and its New Jersey-style "ripper" hot dogs.
If you've never eaten a fried hot dog, you're missing out. The smell is of franks to the tenth power. The flavor is, too, with a satisfyingly crisp jacket. The Octo-Dogs' tentacles only amplified the effect. What fun it was to dip them in the mustard provided on the side!
I skipped the Piggy Bar's signature corn dog in favor of another battered novelty called the Mozza Stick.
The stick, with its cute little piggy tail of extra batter, seemed like a great idea. Mozzarella, corn meal and marinara? It sounded like the fair-food equivalent of a traditional polenta dish.
But no, it was like a corn dog without the dog. The small stretch of mozzarella all but disappeared in the thick batter.
My favorite vendor of the last few years, a Florida-based barbecue truck called Localfolk, was missing in action this year. But I've gone to the fair every year since 1998, and have been hitting up the Elk's Club booth for its fried chicken dinners almost as long. This year, I learned the sad truth that the chicken is not made from scratch. But that didn't negate my enjoyment.
The honey-stung, peppery batter shatters like sugar glass with each bite, revealing some of the moistest meat around. If it comes out of a freezer bag, then hell, the Elks are buying the right bag.
The fries are as perfectly down-the-middle as could be. Crisp, well-seasoned and as uniform as the ones from McDonald's. Along with a roll and plenty of Cabot butter, it's the most comforting homestyle meal at the fair.
The Sweet Stuff
I've had my fill of Dizzy Donuts and fried Oreos. This year, it was time to explore new realms of fried overkill. Believe it or not, I got to be this old without ever having eaten a funnel cake.
Though it wasn't local, the cart at right seemed like the reasonable place to taste first blood. The shack just before the midway had it all — fried candy bars, fried snack cakes, even fried bananas. But I was drawn in by the s'mores funnel cake (above).
And I made the right choice. The honey-sweet tendrils of pastry had a pleasant crispness that surrounded the soft, chewy dough.
Semi-sweet chocolate and mini marshmallows combined with Graham cracker crumbs as they melted into the nooks of the cake.
Pulling it apart was hot, gooey ecstasy.
It sounds dirty because it is. But if we only indulge in such lurid pleasures once a year, we have the fair to thank for making it seem like wholesome family fun.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to [email protected].