Saturday, October 20, 2007

Guilty Pleasures at the NC State Fair

The North Carolina State Fair has been in town since last weekend, and I've already visited three times. I love the fair. I go every year, as many times as I can. Heck, if I could take a week of vacation when the fair is in town and go every day, I would (and maybe I'll do that next year). It's not the rides that draw me, or the games or even the shows (and I've seen some good ones, including Lou Rawls a few years ago, and this year Paula Deen was the biggest headline). My main love at the fair is the food, and the overall sensory experiences: you are bombarded with all sorts of sights and colors, smells and aromas, sounds natural and mechanical, and weather that can range from frosty to summer-hot (the latter was the case this year). Of course, it's a great place to people-watch, and to watch great fireworks each night, and to look at livestock and crafts if that's your cup of tea. But for me, it's mainly about the food. There's your traditional fair fare of fried dough (and fried everything else) and funnel cakes, cotton candy and candy apples, corn dogs on a stick (and lots of other things on a stick), peanuts, popcorn, sausage with peppers & onions, giant turkey legs, pizza and ice cream. But there's a whole lot more, too. Here are some of my favorite things to eat.

I always get the roast corn, from the stand that's actually roasting them over hot coals. I'm suspicious of the other stands that are selling "roast" corn and yet have no visible means of roasting the corn. The baked pretzels down by the pig races are another tasty "carb fix", and the garlic & butter pretzel is especially good (plus they have 3 different kinds of mustard you can dip them in). The only "must have" fried item for me is the "blooming onion", and there are several vendors that offer them (the best ones are down by the real roast corn on the way to the Village of Yesteryear, showcasing old-fashioned crafts). Sometimes I'll also indulge in tempura veggies and rationalize that I'm eating "healthy", or I'll get the Wisconsin fried cheese and claim it's for the calcium. Yes, I can rationalize just about anything. When it's cold, I get a San Francisco bread bowl with clam chowder, and sometimes also some authentic south Indian fare from the Kerala Curry folks. But this year it was way too hot (in the 80s during the day), so I passed on the soup and instead of curry I had a made-to-order glass of mango lassi at Kerala Curry. Although I normally have some homemade ice cream from either the NC State University stand or the "John Deere" stand (ice cream maker powered by old farm machinery), this year I had a waffle cone with "moose tracks" ice cream from MellowButterCup. OK, I'll admit it: I had 3 moose tracks cones, one each day I went. Yes, it was that good.

For the last few years, a Lebanese restaurant has been setting up a stand to sell traditional Lebanese food, both meat-based and vegetarian. On a whim, I tried the vegetarian platter the first year, and was quite impressed! I've had it again every year since. The vegetarian platter comes with tabbouleh, hummos, 2 falafel patties in tahini sauce, stuffed grape leaves, pita bread wedges, and a little piece of a Lebanese pastry that is similar to baklava (they call it baklava but it's not true Greek baklava). The name of the stand is "Party in a Pita" - hey, with a name like that, you just have to stop and try something from them! Another "must have" meal for me at the fair is the tilapia sandwich from a nondescript little stand with a sign that reads, simply, "Hot Fish". The tilapia (a NC white-fleshed mild fish) is crispy-fried to order, never greasy, and is served on a plain bun with tartar sauce and Texas Pete Sauce available. You can also add fries, and this year they offered sweet potato fries as well (which came sprinkled with a light dusting of sugar and cinnamon, making them a nice contrast to the savory fish sandwich). Another "must stop" (or at least "must stop and listen" stop) is the Apex Lions Club restaurant, in a long low building that houses several other restaurants belonging to churches and charities. They serve a mean country ham biscuit, but their specialty is pie - or as the "barker" says it, "PIIIIIIIIIIIE" (or "paaaaaaaaah" - in other words, a seriously drawn out southern drawl). For years, the little old man was there in person with his microphone, listing all the different flavors of PIIIIIIIIIIIE, a la Forrest Gump ("we have lemon pie, chocolate pie, apple pie, coconut pie, sweet potato pie...."). He wasn't there this year but his recorded voice was piped outside, inviting you to come set a spell and have some PIIIIIIIIIIIE. And so I did.

As one would expect at the NORTH CAROLINA state fair, there was plenty of pork to be had, both as ribs and as barbeque, as well as ham and other pork products (I won't elaborate on the souse or liver pudding). A little hut with the intriguing sign "BBQ Sundae" caught my attention, and one of their servers was calling out to the passers-by, "Ask me what a BBQ Sundae is!" And so I did. Thankfully, there's no ice cream involved. Their curiously named specialty comes in a styrofoam cup and features a bottom layer of real smoked pulled pork BBQ, followed by baked beans, and topped with slaw. My husband tried it, and proclaimed it the best BBQ he had had at the fair. He gave it a couple of squirts of their vinegar-based barbecue sauce (they also had a Piedmont sauce available), and proceeded to devour the whole thing without offering me a taste. I guess I'll just have to try it next year!

A visit to the fair wouldn't be complete without checking out all the exhibit halls. I especially like the crafts, like Seagrove pottery, handmade old-fashioned soaps and candles, woodwork, handwoven textiles and baskets, rustic furnishings, etc. I also always stop by the Goodness Grows in NC pavilion to visit with the folks who make some of the products we carry at the Carolina Sauce Company, such as Capsicana Zing and Bone Suckin' Sauce. Sometimes I discover brand new NC products making their "premiere appearance", and other times I find new recipes to try with old favorites. This year, award-winning chefs from NC provided cooking demonstrations on a stage outside the NC pavilion, and I got to watch Scott Adams of the Blackwater Grille make some simple yet elegant dishes featuring local ingredients. I hope they continue this new event at next year's fair, since I picked up some fresh ideas I can't wait to try in my kitchen! Alas, the last day of the state fair is tomorrow, and so the countdown to next year's fair begins....

Zestfully yours,

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