Friday, September 16, 2011

Eating the Great NY State Fair

We finally made it to the Great New York State Fair over Labor Day weekend, and it was quite an experience. There was so much to see and do (and eat!) that it has taken us another week to try and sum it all up for you, sorting through our notes on scraps of paper and collecting all our photos to try and describe it all. A little bout of unrelated illness delayed us even further, but now that the Fair has ended for the year, we are eager to share our thoughts on the experience.

Overwhelmed by choices!
If you follow us on Twitter you already know some of what we did that day. With only two stomachs between us (although Andrea has observed in the past that David must have an additional smaller stomach he can deploy at will, this is only based on conjecture and is not backed up medical science) there was no way we could have tried everything so we just did our best to make the most of the time we had. 

For four hours straight, we focused on sampling the greatest variety of fair foods we could, including many suggestions we got from our readers who shared tips here on the blog and by email, as well as on Twitter and Facebook. We tried a few of the fried fantasy crazy foods that get a lot of buzz, but we also made an effort to try some of the classic award-winners from vendors who have been at the fair for years, even generations. And considering that this was the NY State Fair's 170th anniversary, there were plenty of classics to choose from.

Here are some thoughts from both of us on our first-ever Fair Food adventure: 

Decisions, decisions...
ANDREA: Despite being a lifelong resident of New York State, I'd never been to the Fair. I thought I knew what to expect, but it was overwhelming enough that I now feel you have to go back a few times to get a handle on it. Parts of the midway felt like Coney Island--though we didn't have any, I was glad to see steamer clams offered at a few places, and I would totally have gone for that on another day.

DAVID: I grew up in a rural NH town that is home to the "oldest and largest agricultural fair" in New England. It was something we went to every year when I was a kid, so I know what big fairs are like, but I'd never been to an official State Fair before and this was at least 30% larger than size of what I am used to. It was a little intimidating at first, but the mood is very family friendly and the smells of frying and grilling foods were just like the fair I grew up with. I was ready to eat the first fried thing that looked good because clearly we'd be walking some of the calories off in the hours ahead.

"Pizze Fritte" or "Pizza Frite" - who cares? It was perfect.
A: Pretty quickly I was drawn to things representing the past--the first food we tried was the the Villa Pizze Fritte stand, with the retro chalet look and the 1960-era award. Yes, it was "fried dough," but it wasn't like the "pizza frite" I'd known from church bazaars growing up… but it felt like perfect "fair food" to me.

D: That place was crazy busy! I'd never seen fried dough like that, and I love places that are so established in their little niche that they're kinda famous and get long lines like that. Anyplace that has a real building and not just a trailer has got to be doing something right. Two feet of fried dough? Yes please! It was a delicious way to get started on the fried goods, and a fun novelty treat.

Emmi's eggplant sub "with balls"
A: In the International Pavillion, I continued the "60s Awarded Winner" theme when I was drawn to Emmi's Italian Subs, with their intriguing award-winning eggplant sub. "With balls" (meatballs"), it took me back to the family-style Italian food I had growing up in the Binghamton area. Soft sub roll, sweet tomato sauce (with a little kick), and a very traditional beef meatball--but the thin, sweet eggplant, batter fried but not oily or greasy at all, was definitely unique.

D: That eggplant was really good and original. But of course I couldn't wait to try the food that was getting all the buzz this year, the Donut Burger from Big Kahuna. A quarter-pound beef patty with your choice of bacon, lettuce, onion and tomato, all served on a sliced and grilled glazed donut "bun" from Harrison's Bakery in Syracuse. In fact, not long after we got to the Fair, there were already Twitter followers asking if we'd tried it yet. Turned out the vendor was only a few steps away from the gate where we entered so it wasn't long before I ordered one with all the toppings (no condiments though so the original flavors wouldn't be obscured) and I was pleasantly surprised by the result. It turned out to be the most tasty "over-the-top" food I had the whole day. 

Big Kahuna Donut Burger
It sounded crazier that it actually was -- not very different from a regular burger in terms of size or toppings. In fact, a "quarter-pound" burger (4 oz.) is small compared to the popular "gourmet" burgers you might get in Ithaca. The donut is the only real difference, but the sweetness of that sugar glaze really added a lot of flavor along with the calories. The biggest downside was the sticky donut glaze that got all over my fingers. A wet-wipe would have been very handy there.

A: That doesn't mean it wasn't still kind of gross. Have you seen the look on your face in the video of you eating that thing? I think you were a little embarrassed that you liked it as much as you did:

D: Well, just wait until I try to re-create my own version at home!

Not actual spiedies!
A: Yeah -- good luck with that... Enough about burgers. I have to say, I was very disappointed that spiedies were not better represented. I wanted to try the chicken spiedies offered by Gianelli Sausage, but the fact that there were no Lupo's or Salamida's there (Salamida's IS "State Fair" spiedies, after all!) kind of broke my Triple Cities heart. When I did see spiedies on a menu, they were being served with peppers and onions, or mushrooms, or something nuts like that… Guess we need to hit the Spiedie Fest if we want it done right! (For the uninitiated: spiedies are marinated grilled meat on Italian bread. The end. As soon as you add something else, as far as I'm concerned, it is NO LONGER a spiedie!)

D: I love how loyal you are to the food of your homeland! We really cruised through sampling a bunch of different foods the rest of the day, but this will become the longest blog post ever if we wrote more it all here: marinated kangaroo meat, fried alligator, fried pickles, handmade apple dumplings, maple cotton candy. Stay tuned for our next podcast to hear us talk about those more.

The Rainbow Milk Bar
There were also some things that seemed really popular for reasons we couldn't quite understand, with huge lines for $1 baked NY State potatoes, and the famous 25-cent "Rainbow Milk Bar." Perhaps it was just for tradition, perhaps it was just because they were cheap, but neither of those felt refreshing enough to be worth standing in line for on a hot and humid day so we moved on. Maybe next time?

A: I'd heard about "wine slushies" earlier in the summer… I don't know how long these have been offered by the area wineries, I just knew I wanted to try one! The slushy I had made with "Diamond" blend from Montezuma Winery really hit the spot for me, and this may become something I crave every summer!

NY Wine Bar and Brew Pub in the International Pavilion
D: As a grown up I'll say I was also pleased that it was okay to purchase beer or wine from vendors and drink them freely on the grounds without being restricted to certain roped off areas as I've seen at some places, though there were central places like the wine tent and the beer garden. Oddly it wasn't the Pride of NY building but the International Pavilion that featured NY State wines and beers most prominently. 

A: I wish we'd better understood the food layout before we got there, but maybe that only comes with experience. The "Restaurant Row" area of established food vendors like Baker's would have been a drawn had we not wound our way around to it at the END of our time there… and would be the sort of spot I think we'd want to hit first next time. 

Madness: the Deep-Fried Bacon-Wrapped Snickers Bar
D: I agree -- they had plenty of seating, nice atmosphere, and of course reliably great food. But being the glutton for punishment that I am, I couldn't resist at least trying one more "stunt food" you'll only find at a place like this: the Deep-Fried Bacon-Wrapped Snickers Bar. It was... an interesting failure. Way too much of everything. I don't know how anyone could eat an entire one themselves.

A: It probably does depend on your mood at the time: go for the latest crazy fair food, or the old favorites. 

D: Yeah, in the end I think the lemonade we got on the way back to our car was the most refreshing thing I had all day. We'll probably be more sensible when we go back again, but the variety of options for every whim definitely make it a great eating experience.

Slideshow: Highlights from the NY State Fair

So that's our NY State Fair wrap up. We'll be talking about the experience some more in our next podcast coming in October so be sure you're subscribed for updates. We'll also be posting more photos on our flickr page.

A *big thank you* to Chris at the NY State Fair publicity office for sending us the free passes to be guest bloggers this year. Even though the 2011 Fair has ended, there are still lots of fun events going on at the Fairgrounds throughout the year so be sure to visit to sign up for updates and, of course, to start planning your own visit to the next Great New York State Fair in 2012!

Thanks also to all of you who sent in your suggestions for our visit -- it was a big help! We look forward to bringing you all new updates on the Ithaca dining scene and more when we return to a regular schedule in October. 

Until then, keep healthy, keep cooking, and keep Eating Ithaca!

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Monday, August 22, 2011

We're Going to the NY State Fair!

Hello, Eating Ithaca followers! We've had an exciting couple of weeks and we've got so much to share with you in the weeks ahead, it's hard to know where to start.

First let's just get this out of the way: finally, after a year of hiatus, we are going to be bringing back the Eating Ithaca podcast starting in October. We're very excited and also a little nervous about it all (do we even remember how to do this?) but it's been long enough, don't you think? Look for more announcements here and on our Twitter and Facebook pages for updates. We'll probably be tweaking this website along the way as well and adding some new features, so stay tuned.

Secondly, we were contacted by people working behind the scenes at the NY State Fair last week who offered us free tickets to attend the Fair this year as guest bloggers!

We've never been to the Fair before, but we've talked about it as a great showcase for both good eating (two important food groups: fried and on-a-stick!) and for the amazing local culinary and agricultural bounty of New York, so we took this as a sign that it was time to go see it all for ourselves.

However, we need your help: What do you think first-timers should eat/see/do at the Fair?

Of course, we've been to other fairs before and they are always fun, but this is "The Great NY State Fair" and it's bigger than any we've been to before. Because it's so big we'd hate to miss out on something really great, so if you've been to the NY State Fair before, we'd love your advice. Tell us:
  • your favorite must-try unique food
  • your favorite place to get standards like french fries or funnel cake
  • a unique competition or demonstration we should see
  • specialty food products we should stock up on to bring home
If you're going to be at the Fair showing off products or talents of your own, let us know! We'd love your advice on any of it - just leave a comment below, post an idea on our Facebook page or tweet it to @EatingIthaca. We can't promise we'll be able to do it all, but we're sure gonna try!

The NY State Fair starts this week, running August 25th through September 5th. We're not sure which day we'll be going yet, but probably within the next week so get us your feedback soon. You can visit their website at for a list of all the vendors, concerts, and special events happening this year. They also have a cool mobile-friendly site that we're looking forward to using, including a "food finder" tool that is going to be very handy for plotting a course through a day of indulgent eating.

And if you've never been to the NY State Fair either, this might be the year to give it a try. Admission is only $10 and kids 12 and under are free, and it's only about an hour from Ithaca. We're honored to be getting in for free this year too, but we know we'll be making up what we're saving in admission by buying even more delicious fair treats -- err... supporting the food businesses at this fun annual event.

Get in touch with your ideas, and stay tuned for more updates. We'll have a full report on our NY State Fair adventure after Labor Day and even more when the Eating Ithaca podcast returns!

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Remembering Our Local Food Pioneer Gary Redmond

We are saddened to hear about the passing of Gary Redmond, one of the great heroes and evangelists of local, sustainable food culture and entrepreneurship in Ithaca and the Finger Lakes. His influence and spiritual leadership for the local foods community here and throughout the Northeast are immeasurable.

As a founder of Regional Access, Gary helped connect a new generation of customers, including many of our best markets and chefs, with small growers and producers that create some of the best foods in the state, spreading their bounty across NY. He also opened up his resources to support small independent producers who needed extra space or production resources, and developed partnerships that helped expand the reach of companies like Finger Lakes Organics and the Great Local Foods network.

I had the privilege of spending some time with Gary back in 2009 to learn about his work and interview him for this podcast. It remains one of my favorite interviews we ever recorded and a conversation I shall never forget. It was clear that Gary was guided by a personal passion, philosophy, and spirituality that drove him to work for the greater good. His passion and spirit was infectious, he sought to do good, live fully, and share good food with friends.

Our thoughts, condolences, and hugs go out to his family and everyone at Regional Access. We may have lost the man, but it's safe to say his legacy and his mission will continue to grow for generations to come.

-- Dave


Thursday, February 17, 2011

The 2011 Chili Festival POSTPONED TO SUNDAY 2/20!

The 13th Annual Great Downtown Ithaca Chili Cook-off & WinterFest is so close we can almost taste it! Come take part in this annual cure for the winter blahs down on the Ithaca Commons this Saturday, February 19th.


Due to dangerous high wind warnings for gusts up to 60 mph for Saturday, organizers have re-scheduled the event for
Sunday, February 20th, 11:30 am to 4:00 pm.

We applaud the decision to keep people safe and keep chili festival fun. See you on Sunday!

It's the first big local food event of every year and 2011 is shaping up to be awesome.

We've already heard from organizers that they'll have 50 different chili recipes competing to be the best, including dozens of meat and vegetarian varieties, from over 30 restaurants.

If you want to sample these delicious chili varieties for yourself, you'll need to get yourself some Tasting Tickets:

Tickets to Taste are $5 for 5, $10 for 11, or VIP tickets are 10 for $20 (and you get a special VIP line at each booth). Each ticket gets you a 2-3oz sample of chili or a comparable sample of other items from wine to chocolate. Tickets are now available for advance purchase at Autumn Leaves Used Books, 115 The Commons; Collegetown Bagels, Downtown at 203 N. Aurora St; Collegetown Bagels, East Hill Plaza; Collegetown Bagels, Collegetown and at the Downtown Ithaca Alliance office in Center Ithaca. Buy yours now and skip the lines on Saturday!

And while Chili may be the main event, there will be plenty of other events going on all day to keep you warm and entertained until the judging is done - the Chili Idol Karaoke Contest, Guitar Hero competitions, plus lots of live music and live performers throughout the day. If you've never made it to the Chili Cook-Off before, listen to our past coverage of this event in Episode #3 of our podcast to get a good idea of what to expect. This year also brings the return of the new annual Chili Cook-Off Mustache Competition! Grow it, craft it or stick it on (ladies too!) and be spotted by the official Chili photographer for your chance at complimentary VIP chili tasting tickets and other prizes.

Click Here for a complete Schedule of Events and plan your day now. Events are scheduled from 11:30 am - 4:00 pm and the weather forecast looks sunny, so dress in layers, bring your friends and family and your favorite spoon, and get ready to enjoy some great eating from Ithaca's best chefs. You won't have another chance to sample this much food in one place... until next year!


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