RALEIGH — Stephen Harrison contemplated the first stage of a meal at the N.C. State Fair: temptation.
“Something’s drawing me in – I don’t know what,” Harrison said, waiting to order one of this year’s best-publicized treats. Then he slapped down his $7 for an oozing, cheesy sloppy joe on a glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut.
The novelty “flew out the window” during the fair’s first hours, according to the staff at the 1853 Grille. Following up on previous years’ Krispy Kreme cheeseburger, they said, the concessionaire seemed again to have struck a balance between classic fatty foods and odd new combinations.
The opening of the 2013 State Fair once again brought a new round of one-upmanship among the 200-plus food vendors. Attention seems to follow the new items, even as old classics remain sellers. What it amounts to is a battle for attention and dollars, and what for many is the heart of the fair experience.
Harrison, 30, and his friends had made straight for the grill on “preview day,” following the buzz to the sloppy joe. The first bites, he said, had a captivating effect – “I taste the two flavors mixing.”
As the sandwich disappeared, though, he seemed to slow from the second stage – enjoyment – to the long final stretch of the metabolic process. “I think,” he said, “it’s best I don’t ride anything.”
Just down the row, Cary’s First United Methodist Church already was doing the brisk business it has fostered in almost a century at the fair. The church sells about 50,000 assorted biscuits each year to support mission work.
“We haven’t ever tried to keep up with all those fads,” said manager Rick Kibler, 66.
Dennis Lee of Raleigh said it’s ever-harder to make concessions stand out among the competition. That’s why the 55-year-old project manager was juggling in a jester hat outside the family stand, Lee’s Concessions, which only operates during the State Fair.
“It reminds them they want some cotton candy and candied apples,” Lee said. “Otherwise they just walk in a glaze.”
Over in the Commercial Building, David Booth theorized that a good food vendor needs to keep the old while pushing boundaries. This year he and his wife deployed double-decker caramel apples dipped in chocolate, covered in candy and topped by a Hostess Ding Dong cake.
“I told her, ‘We need a new item – how about a double doozy?’” Booth said. “It’s never been done. Nobody’s ever seen two caramel apples on a stick.”
Passersby marveled at the combination, priced at $19.95 at Miss Debbie’s Specialty Apples of Benson.
“I wouldn’t even know how to start on that,” said Alycia Briones, 33, of Greensboro. “I’ll do a funnel cake.”
Booth acknowledged the monstrosity was a play for attention, but he stood by its culinary validity – “We sell every one we make” – and claimed at least a hint of nutrition.
“Yeah, it’s got candy on it, it’s got caramel – but it’s got an apple,” he said.
Boppie’s Onion Rings and Lemonade has a similar philosophy about its tempura broccoli and mushrooms.
“You try to give a healthy option. Somewhat healthy, since it’s fried,” said Gino Orlandi, 45. “It’s kind of got to be fried.”
Fried, glazed or just generally unhealthy, all the fair’s eaters came with an objective.
“I came for the food – just to try something new,” said Derek Parrish, visiting with his wife and young son. He had just finished a glazed sloppy joe.
His reaction? “I don’t feel good about myself. … This is good. … It’s like an immediate sugar rush. Then you realize what you did to yourself … my digestion, the years off my life.”
Despite the heart-attack jokes, an individual meal is unlikely to have catastrophic health effects, said Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, interim chairwoman of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Nutrition.
“If somebody eats one of those fried Twinkie hamburgers … and that really is the only really unhealthy thing they eat that week, that month or that year, that really isn’t going to do them any particular harm,” she said.
But “if it’s a treat today, those treats really do add up. People need to be realistic and not work so hard to rationalize their choices.”
She added that enjoying food is important – and that a whole lot of exercise can work off a treat.
Vendors at other fairs have dabbled in veritably healthy food, such as salad on a stick, said Matthew Varnadoe, a manager for the 1853 Grille. He has considered a similar move, but for now the market is rewarding the beefy doughnut that he found on the Internet.
“Who comes out to the fair,” he asked, “to eat healthy?”
Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC