On the first day of the N.C. State Fair, Sanford’s Gail Strickland and Carrie Yow were culinary thrill-seekers on a roller-coaster ride through taste town.
After an hour’s walk through the Flower Show to whet their appetites, they began making their way between food vendors, whiplashing from the savory and sweet, salt pork to powdered sugar.
“We try all the new stuff,” said Strickland, holding out her hands to receive a basket of deep-fried pork barbecue from State Fair Foods in Kiddieland. Without getting a drop of sauce on her polished nails, she took a bite of what looked like a corn dog but tasted like a pig-picking on a stick.
“Mmmm,” she managed. “That’s really good.”
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Among the hordes who come to the fair each year are the adrenaline junkies who stay until closing to ride every stomach-churning machine. There are the people-watchers, who amble from one end of the fairgrounds to the other, taking in the tattoos and the teenagers.
Then there are the people like Bonnie and Brandon Edwards of Zebulon, for whom an annual trip to the State Fair is a gastronomical Tilt-A-Whirl.
“We’ve never been on a ride out here,” Brandon said. He licked his lip to get the last smudge of special sauce from his share of the deep-fried bananas Foster, one of this year’s new offerings.
The way 17-year-old boys are drawn to the tallest, fastest new thing on the midway, the Edwardses come through the gate with a list of calorie-dense destinations: the roasted corn; the fried cheesecake; the frozen Key lime pie; and whatever is the newest thing to come out of hot grease.
“This is really good,” Bonnie Edwards said of the bananas Foster.
Chef Joseph Fasy developed the deep-fried dessert for his friend, Chris Wrenn, who runs the Ragin’ Cajun booth, located near the grandstand and known for selling alligator on a stick. Fasy said it took three months to develop their take on the classic New Orleans dessert: deep-fried, batter-dipped bananas served with vanilla ice cream and a sauce made with brown sugar, butter, orange juice, rum and banana liqueur, and topped with a cherry.
Nearby, McBrides Concessions, one of the oldest food vendors, with multiple locations at the fair, has added homemade onion rings this year. Owner Bess Brinkley explained that her late mother, Bettie, was known for the popular side item.
Bettie’s handcrafted ones were replaced years ago when frozen onion rings became available. “I guess we got lazy, to tell you the truth,” Brinkley said.
Earlier this year at the Mountain State Fair in Asheville, Brinkley said they ran out of frozen onion rings. When her staff asked if they should take them off the menu, Brinkley said, “No. I know how to make those.”
She revived her mother’s recipe, and sales went crazy. The rings are offered at their stand along the walkway between the Expo and Graham buildings. They come with Bettie’s secret-recipe horseradish sauce, an homage, Brinkley said, to her mom.
Murphy House is known for its annual fair-food innovations. In previous years, Murphy House introduced such crispy hits as deep-fried HoHos, deep-fried Coke and the Krispy Kreme cheeseburger.
This year, Murphy House is introducing the Twinx, a Twinkie stuffed with a Twix candy bar, wrapped in bacon, batter-dipped and deep-fried. The Twinx did well at the Virginia State Fair and the Dixie Classic Fair in Winston-Salem. But at the N.C. State Fair, Murphy House’s Matthew Varnadoe said, “We’re expecting the Twinx to blow up.”
Stacey Shun, visiting from Anaheim, Calif., came to the fair with her mother, Mary Boury, of Knightdale, and sister, Amanda Boury of Raleigh. The Bourys compete in some of the fair’s cooking contests, and all three women are discerning customers of midway snacks.
They bought the Twinx and another Murphy House creation, a bacon-wrapped, batter-fried Reese’s Cup. They declared the Twinx to be more sweet, and the Reese’s to be more salty. They liked them both.
“But I don’t think anybody could eat two of those,” Mary Boury said.