Behind the Appeal of America’s Craziest Fair Foods
LOS ANGELES — If there’s one culinary truism about Americans, it’s that we can deep-fry anything.
Nowhere is that more true than on United States fairgrounds. County fairs, state fairs, street fairs — you name it, and they’re selling fried food on a stick at it.
The expert on these foods is George Geary, author of the book “Fair Foods: The Most Popular and Offbeat Recipes from America’s State & County Fairs.”
“Offbeat” is the key word here, as Geary notes throughout the book how the creators of culinary oddities such as fried Snickers often develop their recipes while trying to outdo each other for the weirdest food.
“It’s a way to get you over there to those vendors,” he says. “Honestly, my foods in the book are not weird compared to some of the stuff coming out now. People are trying to top each other every year.”
As a former cake contest judge and then culinary coordinator for the Los Angeles County Fair, Geary knows his mozzarella sticks from his fried cheese balls.
But that’s not to say every recipe in Fair Foods requires firing up the deep fryer. “I didn’t want them all fried foods,” he tells CNN Travel. “Because that’s what a lot of people think of fair foods — everything’s fried. So I [included] pulled pork sandwiches and stuff like that.”
Some fair foods are, dare we say it, healthy. Or almost.
Here are 11 fair foods worth a look:
Triple cheeseburger donut
Hailing from the Iowa State Fair, this beaut is three beef patties and six slices of American cheese wedged between a Krispy Kreme donut sliced in half.
It’s not as unhealthy as it sounds, either. “Technically, that recipe is a little more than a quarter-pounder,” says Geary. “So they’re small, almost like a slider.”
Go ahead and eat two then.
Everything is bigger in Texas and that includes high-falutin’ ideas for deep-frying condiments.
Deep-fried butter debuted at the Texas State Fair before spreading to state fairs around the country.
Balls of frozen butter are dipped into a sugary buttermilk batter and then fried.
“It’s like an inside-outside pancake,” Geary explains. “You’ve got the batter on the outside and it fries and the butter inside melts.”
Fried Coca-Cola debuted at the 2006 Texas State Fair and is now served at fairs across America.
It’s an enticingly bizarre proposition, certain to pique the curiosity of hungry fairgoers. “‘How do you fry something liquid?'” Geary asks.
“But then when you eat it, you realize what they’ve done is flavored with Coca-Cola a batter, kind of like a funnel cake.” Fried Coca-Cola is dusted with confectioners’ sugar and served with whipped cream and a cherry on top.
Fried green beans
Not all fried foods are gluttonous calorie bombs like deep-fried Oreos or deep-fried bacon. You can fry vegetables too.
In fact, fried green beans have distinguished themselves by making their way from the fairgrounds to white tablecloth restaurants. “Now in California, they’re appetizers in high-end restaurants,” Geary says.
Fried cheese balls and fried guacamole (also known as fried avocado bites) are two more recipes originating at fairs which upscale restaurants now serve. “You only get it once a year [at a fair] and now these restaurants have it full-time,” he explains.
Deep-fried Oreos are the brainchild of “Chicken Charlie” Boghosian, who created the delicacies for the Los Angeles County Fair in 2002. “He created all these crazy things,” says Geary.
The LA Times notes that Chicken Charlie saw deep-fried Twinkies at a fair in Miami and improved upon the recipe, ultimately selling 10,000 of them in 2001. Inspired by his success, he debuted his deep-fried Oreos a year later.
Geary recommends using Double Stuf Oreos for this decadent treat. “They melt inside and they’re really good,” he says.
The fried corn dogs in “Fair Foods” isn’t just any corn dog recipe: Geary created it for Disneyland when he was working as a pastry chef in the ’80s.
It’s still used today at the Big Red Wagon on Disneyland’s Main Street.
“People talk about it’s one of their favorite cheap products at Disneyland,” Geary says. “I didn’t realize how popular that was until a month ago when I saw online people were doing a copycat recipe.”
He found the woman who was sharing the copycat Disneyland corn dog recipe online and contacted her with the original — adapting the recipe to serve 10 instead of 150, of course.
Pickle dogs are popular at Minnesota State Fair. Despite what the name suggests, they’re actually roll-ups, not hot dogs.
“There was a line down the block [at the Minnesota State Fair] for these things and I thought ‘Why?'” Geary recalls. “And somebody said ‘They’re the healthiest thing!'”
Honey ham slices coated with cream cheese and wrapped around dill pickle spears may not sound healthy, but when compared to fried butter, they’re not so bad.
Coney Island chili dogs
Coney Island chili dogs aren’t from Coney Island at all: Two hot dog stands (in Fort Wayne, Indiana and Jackson, Michigan respectively) both claim to have invented the dogs.
For a fair foods connoisseur like Geary, this presents a bit of a conundrum. “This was the reason why I didn’t put where every food came from [in the cookbook] because those two have been fighting on who invented a Coney dog,” he says.
So what’s the difference between the dueling dogs?
“In Indiana, there’s more onions in theirs,” Geary explains. The Indiana Coney Island chili dog recipe made it into his cookbook. Sorry, Michigan.
Spicy peanut butter and jelly cheeseburgers
Spicy peanut butter and jelly cheeseburgers take the cake (yes, that was a state fair pun) for the weirdest recipe in the cookbook, says Geary. “It’s kind of like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a hamburger thrown in the middle,” he explains.
Although the addition of jelly creates an odd savory/sweet combination, this wouldn’t be the first time that peanut butter has graced a burger. Geary says there was a hamburger joint in Southern California that served a burger spread with peanut butter. This recipe takes the idea a step further with grape jelly and a sliced jalapeno pepper.
Fair foods come in weird and wonderful varieties, but one good old-fashioned favorite is the snow cone. This might be the easiest recipe in the cookbook, requiring only ice cubes, sugar and two packages of powdered Kool-Aid in any flavor that strikes your fancy.
Geary suggests two elegant variations that he’s seen in the south of France: Snow cones made with rose petals or violet petals.
Snow cones may be considered “boring” compared to other recipes in his cookbook, he says, but they deserve a shout-out for nostalgia’s sake alongside cotton candy and ice cream cones.
Frozen cheesecake on a stick
Food on a stick is popular at fairs because it doesn’t require seating and it creates less waste.
“To make a cheesecake slice, you’d need a plate and a fork,” Geary explains. “So what the fair people were doing was freezing [slices], dipping it in chocolate and it looks like a triangle with a stick in it.” ”
And there’s no better person than George Geary from whom to get your cheesecake recipe. Not only has he published two books about cheesecakes (“The 125 Best Cheesecake Recipes” and “The Cheesecake Bible”) but in the 1990s, he made all the cheesecakes used as props on the show “The Golden Girls” (and all the ones eaten at the after-party when filming wrapped).
“For the Friday night taping, I would have to do seven cheesecakes,” he recalls. Perhaps an idea for his next cookbook?