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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Janelle said...

I loved the Pulled Pork at Hallock's Hard Times at the Fair. And there's an apple dumpling in the horticulture building that's to die for. So glad for the new post! If you haven't done so yet, check out I've linked to you!

Neil | Butterfield said...

sounds like you had a great time, I like the look of the Kahuna burger!

Anonymous said...

It's now 2012, and "Not From Wisconsin" is going to be performing at the Ithaca Festival (starting tonight). I wonder if they'll play the Eating Ithaca theme....



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