Fun fair foods: elephant ears, corn dogs, and tortas?

There are two quintessential kinds of summer foods: street food and fair food. Both are forms of fun food, but fair food is the most fun because it is consciously exuberant and overstated, and the carnival barker names of midway specialties read like midsummer poetry. In the Midwest the poem is all about funnel cakes, elephant ears, and the one essential meal: corn dogs for your main course and cream puffs for dessert (piled high with clouds of real Wisconsin cream, instead of those insipid snowballs of faux, vaporous cream that signify a soulless puff, the kind that just deflates).

The basic fair meal, though, varies around the country. Some fair oddities formidable enough to stand up to Wisconsin cheese curds: the kronski in Wyoming; fried pickles with horseradish sauce, sometimes dished up at the New York Dutchess County Fair; alligator-on-a-stick and the inevitable spaghetti-on-a-stick at the Minnesota State Fair. I'm not sure what the top fair foods are in other areas of the country (though I'd like to know; the south and southwest must have some extravagant signature dishes), but there is a back-story to a lot of these unironically retro treats. Some of them represent arcane regional specialties; some of them are just happily freakish sideshow snacks.

What is interesting is the way the changing specialties evoke an evolving culture. The longest line at the Dane County Fair, when I stopped by last weekend, wasn't in front of the corn dog stand but snaking around a new attraction: a group of vendors selling chorizo tortas and serious tacos. County fairs were always meant to be a communal meeting point and in Wisconsin the community has just grown. Now the farmers are joined by hippies and bohos and the growing population of Latinos who have helped turn the fair into a richer kind of fiesta.

What hasn't changed, though, are the farm kids and the prize-winning livestock that still make up the other part of a county fair in Wisconsin. If the elephant ears and funnel cakes border on culinary comic relief, then this is the serious face of the fair, a tradition of family farmers passing on a legacy of pride in their extended family, those dozing pigs and soft-eyed calves. The legacy, really the roots of the organic movement, is obvious in the 4-H boys and girls. Gently braiding the manes of their horses, brushing down the sides of their epic-sized cows, and bending over their baby lambs, with an exquisite kind of tenderness, these are kids who know the beauty of the meek, and their makeshift barns seem hushed and half-lit after the noise of the midway.

Raphael Kadushin's work appears in Bon Appétit, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, and Concierge.com. His fiction and journalism have been widely anthologized in a variety of collections, including Best Food Writing 2001, Best Food Writing 2008, and National Geographic's best-selling Behind the Lens. He is the editor of two travel anthologies: Wonderlands and the upcoming (November 2008) Big Trips. He is also the senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press , where he signs and develops fiction, memoir, travel, and food books.


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