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America's wacky fair foods

Image: hot beef sundae
When state fairgoers tired of the iconic rib eye steak sandwich, the Indiana Beef Cattle Association invented the hot beef sundae, layered with mashed potatoes, marinated beef, gravy, cheese, corn "sprinkles" and a cherry (tomato).
/ Source: Food and Wine

Cotton candy, corn dogs and candied apples once ruled the midway at the local fair, but visitors now want food that's exotic — as long as it's on a stick, or more importantly, fried. From health-defying anomalies like fried dough injected with Pepsi to squirm-inducing chocolate-dipped scorpions, the new sideshow is food.

In 2005, the president of the State Fair of Texas, Errol Mckoy, asked the question, “How do we become even more famous for food?” His answer: Create buzz around new, never-before-seen items each year. McKoy founded The Big Tex Choice Awards to encourage the invention of over-the-top foods that have since included fried butter, chicken-fried bacon and fried beer. The competition quickly gained popularity among fairgoers, and vendors now covet the Big Tex trophy — which resembles an Oscar with a cowboy bobble head glued to the top.

The floodgates for infamous foods opened the second year, when fried Coca-Cola won for most creative entry. “By year two, we were needing to put a map in our daily visitors’ guide showing where the new foods were,” says Sue Gooding, the fair’s vice president of public relations, “The info booths were inundated.”

Innovators are sharing in the attention. “Year three, I had a vendor come up to me and say, ‘I feel like a star — I’m autographing visitors’ guides,’ ” Gooding says. Since then, Texas has been a trendsetter. If a food is distinctive enough to win the Big Tex, it’s likely to turn up at your local fair the following year. Fried beer is already omnipresent.

Fairs across the country vie to achieve Texas levels of fame for their own foodstuffs: The Florida State Fair sells a hamburger topped with fried ice cream, and Indiana’s State Fair serves a sundae that replaces the usual components with mashed potatoes, beef and corn “sprinkles.” Gooding traces the phenomenon of oddball eats back to loyal fairgoers who are looking for something to bond over. “They’re challenging themselves to ride the newest ride, see the most exhibits, spend the most hours at the fair,” Gooding says.

They are also daring one another to eat whatever’s fattiest, weirdest or most extreme. “It’s becoming a social event. You come out with two to three friends and you share,” she adds.

Still, eating the world’s most unhealthy foods is best reserved for once-a-year events. Gooding’s annual treat is a corn dog on a stick, a classic that probably also seemed bizarre when introduced at the Texas fair in 1942.

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