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What's Good: County Fair Edition

Treats that may or may not be worth your dignity



First, a shoutout to the folks who amble to the fairgrounds toting bottles of water, sandwiches and baggies of carrot sticks. Bless your forethought and discipline. Say kind things about the rest of us, whom you'll surely outlive, when we're gone. Along with your excellent cholesterol counts, by forgoing the indulgences of the fair you maintain a level of poise that's difficult to achieve when, say, working your way through a mound of Philly cheesesteak curly fries that have been produced by spinning a russet on a power drill.

Our own fair kicked off as the fryers went cold at the Iowa State Fair, where candidates for our nation's highest office have historically struggled to show themselves to be of the people yet presidential as they bite into all manner of food on a stick. It's impossible. Someone in the attending mob of photographers will catch a stony/teeth-baring/hamster-cheeked/unintentionally sexual portrait that will haunt each candidate, no matter how daintily they try to nibble that fried pickle. That might be the most relatable thing about the whole exercise: None of us looks good eating fair food.

Poking at a heavy tangle of funnel cake on a paper plate looks ridiculous with a fork or sticky fingers, even before you cover yourself in sugar or lurid cherry pie filling. But when the fair rolls into town, our dignity and our long-term health goals vanish like a ribbon of red paper tickets. To ensure your enjoyment outweighs your shame, we hit the vendors to determine which of the ephemeral summer treats worthy of your dollars and your pride. Get some napkins. A lot of napkins.

Deep fried cheesecake ($6)

A basic tenet of fair food is taking a thing that is already indulgent and deep frying it. And so deep-fried cheesecake, dipped in funnel cake batter, was inevitable. There is a stick but to wield it is to go full Scarface with the powdered sugar it's doused in. The tip is molten within, while the center is ice cold — which isn't necessarily bad. But plain old cheesecake is wonderful as it is. Is it improved or transformed like the absolutely worth it deep-fried canned peach halves topped with ice cream or the warm, fried Oreos that more or less turn to cake? It is not. The price tag is fine but you're better than this.

The taps at Wild Bill's Olde Fashioned Soda Pop Co. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • The taps at Wild Bill's Olde Fashioned Soda Pop Co.

Wild Bill's Olde Fashioned Soda Pop Co. ($15-$30)

Ah, the commemorative cup and its endless refills, far more photogenic than attacking a turkey leg. But while you calculate the cost per soda at neighboring stalls and debate the merits of the $15 metal mug vs. the $30 insulated one, consider the burden of the cup. Your soda stein is a shiny ball and chain you must clutch on the Zipper. It whispers to you (and announces to the world) that you need to drink a brain-frying $10 worth of root beer to make this pencil out. And while reusable cups are responsible, ask yourself if you would, under different circumstances, purchase a large metal cup emblazoned with Wild Bill's logo to enrich your home décor for years to come. If that's a yes, have at it. If not, mosey along.

The iconic jumbo corndog. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • The iconic jumbo corndog.

Jumbo corndog ($8)

Listen, there's no way for an adult to eat a corndog with their pride intact. But the cheap, crayon pink dog in a sweet crust of cornbread is the taste of summer in America, dammit. You can try nibbling from the side, like you would an ear of corn, but it's still awkward and there you are in the background of someone's fair selfie, drawing attention to yourself by going at your corndog like Golem with a fish. No, best to lean in. My objection here is mainly price, as a regular corndog can be had WinCo for a mere 98 cents and you can eat it blissfully alone in your car with Bruce Springsteen cranked up on the stereo. This is not exactly dignity but it feels patriotic every time I do it.

The enigmatic churro locos. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • The enigmatic churro locos.

Churro locos ($7.75)

The slushies and agua frescas are the treats to be seen with, Instagram friendly as an ice cream. Pose, sip and sacrifice nothing. Too easy. The churro locos, however, is a challenge: a cup of Clamato layered with cucumbers, pickled pork rinds, crunchy corn churritos, jicama and cracker-coated Japanese peanuts, all liberally painted with tangy chamoy, chili sauce and lime. Is this ... a drink? The overall effect is that of a virgin Bloody Mary with all the bar snacks dumped in it. It's so much saltier than you can imagine and the strips of rubbery pork rind flop and slip from your fork. Why am I fighting to eat this thing I am sure is not good? Do I like it? Why am I still digging around for wet peanuts and brined crackers? Stop me. I will pay for the $30 root beer, just wrest this cup from my hands. Obviously, my dignity is lost, abandoned in pursuit of a compulsion I cannot understand. Please send help.

Pig Wheels doughnuts with bacon and maple flavored syrup. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Pig Wheels doughnuts with bacon and maple flavored syrup.

Pig Wheels doughnuts ($9)

Any time you can eat a hot doughnut, you should. Remember that when someone asks you about the best advice you've ever gotten. The fresh mini doughnuts are easily nibbled without making a scene. But embellishments raise the stakes. The Pig Wheels are a hot mess of a dozen mini doughnuts tossed in crunchy table sugar, smothered in shredded bacon and drizzled with maple (flavored) syrup. It's a sticky claw game as you try to pick up a little meat with your doughnut and get it into your waiting maw without the scraps tumbling onto your shirt. But the little rings are tender and sweet, and hot enough to keep the bacon warm — cold, congealed fat being the problem with bacon desserts. The syrup isn't the real thing but it balances the salt and is lightly applied. The pleasure outweighs the mess and your public bacchanal. If someone notices the stains on your shirt, brag about their origins and you will receive only admiration.


Deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich ($7)

Should I have turned back when the guy at the register gestured to the goldfish my kid's friend just won and asked, "You want me to fry that?" Maybe. But the deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich at this warzone of a stall seemed harmless next to the fried candy bars. Yeah, no. The circular, crustless premade sandwich is dipped in the ubiquitous batter before it's fried and covered, as many things are, in an avalanche of powdered sugar. But what lies beneath is not a mere fried Twinkie. The oil makes its way through the crusty barrier and the white bread beneath becomes translucent, a saturated sponge around a dollop of warm peanut butter and grape jelly. It is transformed ... but into what beast? This is the single greasiest thing I have ever eaten at the fair. If you must satisfy your curiosity, I cannot stop you from coating yourself in a slurry of oil and sugar, your belly roiling with the force of the Gravitron. But friends, there is no victory here.

Share your What's Good tips with Jennifer Fumiko Cahill, arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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