Is there anything better than fair food? That smorgasbord of fantastical edibles covering a full spectrum of taste treats, ethnic edibles and sweets and high-end edibles. And, of course, those classics such as elephant ears and cotton candy—which by the way when it was first served at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis was called Fairy Floss.
Like so many things that turn out not to be true, Fairy Floss wasn’t new that year. Its origins go further back to the spun sugar made in medieval times. The modern version, created in 1897 by William Morrison, a dentist and John C. Wharton, a confectioner. It was the fair that made it a wild success with customers buying 68,655 boxes of Fairy Floss at 25-cents each or about $7.20 in today’s money. With the invention of a similar machine in 1921 that made the same product under the name cotton candy, the name Fairy Floss soon became obsolete.
The 1904 World’s Fair was also credited with the introduction of iced tea, hamburgers, hot dogs, ice cream cones, club sandwiches and peanut butter, all of which originated somewhere else. But all caught on with the 20 million or so people who were in attendance, becoming everyday foods. Even Cottolene, a lard substitute made with beef suet and cotton seed oil said to have first appeared at the fair wasn’t. Invented in 1867, it was on its way out by the early 20th century. All we can say is that we’re really happy about that.
Corn dogs, now a staple at fairs, were patented by Stanley Jenkins of Buffalo, New York in 1920. Funnel cakes, which like Fairy Floss date back to medieval Europe, went mainstream at the Kutztown Festival in 1955. “Chicken Charlie Boghosian dipped an Oreo in sweet pancake batter then popped it in a deep fryer at the 2002 Los Angeles County Fair. Pleased with his success, Boghosian moved on to make deep-fried Twinkies, avocados, bacon wrapped pickles, zucchini weenie (a turkey frank stuffed inside a hollowed-out zucchini dipped in corn dog batter and fried), Krispy Kreme ice cream chicken breast (a raspberry filled donut, sliced in half, packed with a seasoned chicken breast and topped with honey sauce) and fried Kool-Aid and a bunch of other caloric and cholesterol loaded fair foods.
Since then, fair food makers seem to take treats to a new level each summer (think Deep Fried Coke) but for several decades the outlandish concoctions seemed to stall out. An August 14, 1990 edition of the Herald Palladium talked about such delicious offerings at the Berrien County Youth Fair, listing yummy but well known corn dogs, snow cones, cotton candy and elephant ears. Also available in 1990 were hamburgers, onion rings, ice cream, frozen yogurt and even egg rolls.
To me, the best fair food offerings are those that are comforting—what’s better than a caramel apple or Italian sausage sandwich with peppers and onions to the much more unique—think the Mexican Street Corn which has a special sauce made of mayonnaise, sour cream, garlic, cilantro and lime juice sprinkled with cotija, a type of Mexican cheese, the most popular dish served at the Two Buccaneers Corn Truck at the BCYF. The coolest new food—frozen shaved cream with a variety of toppings at the Hawaiian Ice & Creamery truck is not to be missed nor are the ice cream nachos– a scoop of ice cream, a sundae topping of choice, whipped cream and cherry—created by the owners of Wagner’s Good Dips.
These are just a few of the many wonderful offerings at this year’s Berrien County Youth Fair where there are more than 55 food vendors on hand, meaning there’s something for everyone.
Comfort foods are what’s on the menu at the Portage Prairie United Methodist Church, which has been at the BCYF for 71 years, making them one of the oldest vendors there. Their menu includes sloppy joes, hot dogs, chicken wraps, salads, homemade pies and ice creams along with sun tea, soft drinks, water and coffee.
Rosie’s Sweet Shack, housed in one of approximately six buildings on site at the fair, opened one year after the fair started 74 years ago.
“My great uncle’s last name was Rose,” says Michele Pierce, now the owner, with her husband Bill, of the business which is just open at fair time. It’s still a family thing with Don Rose’s daughter, Gerry Pendergrass still helping during fair week.
“We sell snow cones, popcorn, cotton candy, caramel apples—our apples are picked fresh each day by Bixby Orchards in Berrien Springs, cotton candy—which we still make and sell on the stick not in a bag and water,” says Pierce. “Our boys complete each year to make the biggest cotton candy. Sometimes they make them so big that the kids who buy it can barely be seen while they’re eating it.”
They go through approximately five bushels of apples a day.
“We have 48 pounds of caramel going all the time,” she says. “People come back year after year for our caramel apples.”
Two Buccaneers, a play on the words “two bucks an ear,” the Harris family of Baroda will again be steering their corn boat to the BCYF this year. Owners Teri and Craig Harris and their daughters Abby, 18, and Mia, 15 will be helping, something they’ve been doing since they were six and four. Helping them since the beginning is their niece Kayla Harris.
“In the past we’ve only done the Berrien County Youth Fair,” says Teri Harris, noting she and her husband have full time jobs. “This year, our daughters wanted to do the Cass County Fair too, so we let them.”
The family sells all sorts of corn including corn on the cob, Nibble Its—which our corn off the cob and elite—corn with mayonnaise, lime and chili powder.
“We’ll also have a new corn offering this year,” says Harris. “My husband also created El Chupacabra, corn with a spicy sauce of mayonnaise, sour cream, garlic and Sriracha sauce, spicy red pepper and crushed Fiery Hot Cheetos.”
Harris says they decided to start Two Buccaneers after the death of her husband’s brother.
“They’d always gone to the fair as kids and showed rabbits,” she says. “And my husband always dreamed of having a food truck, he thought it would be fun. Then when his brother died, he felt he really need to do it—that life was too short, and you never know what might happen.”
When they decided to start the Two Buccaneers, they started off with a 30-foot boat and hacked of 10 feet of it, hollowed out the middle of it, built a floor and attached it to a trailer. When they’re at the fair, they place two large grills along side the boat and roast corn all day long.
Their corn comes from Hollywood Farms located on Hollywood Road north of Hinchman Road. Owner by Don and Donna Evans, Harris says they bring a trailer full of bushels of corn freshly picked for them each day.
“I tell people the week of fair is the hardest, longest week of the year,” says Harris. “It’s also the most fun.”
Wagner’s Good Dips offers regular and deluxe waffles—the latter are dipped in chocolate and rolled in either peanuts or sprinkles, three types of floats—root beer, orange crush and Boston Coolers, a classic Detroit drink made with Vernors Ginger Ale and shakes out of any of the Hudsonville ice cream flavors they sell.
“We also have hot fudge brownie sundaes, a waffle bowl, and a banana split,” says Denise Wagner who says that their original white trailer (they purchased a yellow one three years ago to be able to hit all the fair and festival circuits) will be at this year’s BCYF which is their seventh at the fair.
“We offer 14 flavors. Mint Chocolate Chip, Deer Traxx, Cookies n Cream, Grand Traverse Cherry Fudge and Blue Moon are just a few of the flavors,” she says. “Our sundae toppings include hot fudge (some of the best around, we’re told), caramel, strawberry, pineapple and chocolate syrup. We make shakes, malts, floats (root beer, orange crush, and Boston Coolers), and banana splits.”
They also offer shaved ice with a choice of up to 3 of 13 different flavorings, the most popular being Blue Raspberry. We can even make it ‘Hawaiian style’ with a scoop of ice cream at the bottom of the cup.
“And lastly, we have raw cookie dough,” continues Wagner. “It’s egg free and the flour is super-heated so it’s safe to eat before baking. You can have a scoop of it by itself, add a scoop of the ice cream of your choice, or go all out and make it into a dough/ice cream sundae.”
This will be the first year at the fair for Joe Racht, owner of the Hawaiian Ice and Creamery.
“There’s a waiting list,” he says, noting that they will be featuring a twist on Hawaiian shave ice. “It’s frozen shaved cream. It’s a huge trend in New York and one of the fastest growing dessert trends.”
Indeed, a quick Google on shaved cream turns up lots of articles on the subject. Also known as shaved snow, snow cream, fluff ice, milk snow and, because its roots are Taiwanese as well as Hawaiian, xue hua bing (meaning snow flower), it’s only been around for a few years, the craze starting in Los Angeles and heading east. Like shave ice, you start with the frozen cream which is shaved into long curls and then add a selection of toppings including cereals such as Cocoa Pebbles, Fruity Pebbles or Captain Crunch; fruit, and candies like Reese’s Peanut Butter, Kit Kat Bars, Oreos and Butterfingers along with other toppings—think condensed milk, caramel, butterscotch, chocolate.
Shuler Dairy is offering ice cream sundaes and shakes, funnel cakes and soft drinks.
“Our Burrito Loco is our most popular burrito consisting of ground beef, chicken, steak, beans, lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, cheese and sour cream,” says Gabriela Morales whose parent Jose and Ana Mendez own El Amigo Pepe restaurant in Niles and also have had a food truck at the BCYF for the last five or six years. “Our menu there consists of tacos, burritos including the Burrito Loco and quesadillas—all made fresh to order. We also have a vegetarian option. In that was use refried beans and we’re hoping to get a fair price on avocados to offer as well. People can ask for no cheese or sour cream on anything.”
You can beat the in-the-moment feel of eating fair food at the fair with all its great smells, sounds and feel of a warm summer night. But if you do want to try to create great fair food at home, here are a few to get tide you through until next year.
The Boston Cooler was named after Detroit’s Boston Boulevard. It’s simply a mix of vanilla ice cream and Vernors Root Beer, a ginger ale invented by a Detroit pharmacist in 1866 and now celebrating it 153rd year in business.
1 cup icy cold Vernors
2-3 small scoops of well-softened (or soft serve) vanilla ice cream
In a tall, well-chilled glass, blend together the Vernors and ice cream. It’s okay if the mixture is a little chunky so it maintains its frothy texture. You can use a blender, but some of the fizz might be lost.
Deep Fried Cheese Bites
1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 pound cheese curds or cubed cheddar cheese
1 cup beer
Oil for deep-fat frying
Place 1/4 cup flour in a large resealable plastic bag. Add cheese curds, a few pieces at a time, and shake to coat.
In an electric skillet or deep fryer, heat oil to 375°. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk beer and remaining flour. Dip cheese curds, a few at a time, into batter and fry for 2-3 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Drain on paper towel.
Chocolate Covered Bacon
12 thick-sliced bacon strips (about 1 pound)
6 ounces white candy coating, coarsely chopped
Optional toppings: chopped dried apple chips, apricots and crystallized ginger, finely chopped pecans and pistachios, toasted coconut, kosher salt, brown sugar, cayenne pepper and coarsely ground black pepper
1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon shortening
Preheat oven to 400°. Thread bacon strips, weaving back and forth, onto twelve 12-in. soaked wooden skewers. Place on a rack in a large baking pan. Bake until crisp, 20-25 minutes. Drain on paper towels; cool completely.
In a microwave, melt candy coating; stir until smooth. Brush onto both sides of six bacon strips; sprinkle with toppings as desired. Place on a waxed paper-lined baking sheet.
In a microwave, melt chocolate chips and shortening; stir until smooth. Brush onto both sides of remaining bacon; decorate as desired.
Refrigerate until set. Store in refrigerator.