Once upon a time, county and state fairs were showplaces for the choicest, fresh-grown and homemade foods of the region, a harvest season blow-out with giant pumpkins, blue-ribbon pickles, pie-eating contests, fiery chili-contests and bake-offs, show chickens and fresh eggs, hand-churned butter (replaced in some places by butter sculpture now), and of course the sweet treats we craved. Even back then, we ate cotton candy and drank sodas and then shook it all up on the rides. I remember vomiting it all out the rear window of the station wagon on the way home. Today’s fair foods are almost synonymous with the junkiest of junk foods such as deep fried twinkies, a Krispy Kreme hamburger, buckets of soda, neon blue slushies, chocolate-covered bacon, and the dreaded corn dog. But the fresh farm products are harder to find. So between my grown-up, health conscious palate and my mixed-bag of cherished/regrettable memories, I headed into the California State Fair on a quixotic and idealistic quest: find something reasonably healthy to eat at the fair. I’m not looking for a booth with kale-and-quinoa-on-a-stick and beet-flavored shaved-ices. Just…something for everyone.
Into the belly of the beast! Through the smoke of grills and fryers!
In the main food courts, I found that the Thai, Chinese, Greek, and Mexican stands had at least one vegetarian option, although some with cheese, which vegans would do without. Thai and Chinese places had rice or noodles with veggies. The Greek gyros booth served falafel, and Pepe’s Mexican locales offered fresh ceviche, veggie burritos, and most important, aguas frescas. If you aren’t familiar with the Spanish name, it’s fresh fruit-infused water, served ice cold. The pineapple was yummy, hibiscus tea is always tangy, and you can’t beat watermelon refreshment.
I asked Karina, the booth’s server, who typically comes to her for fresh fruit. “I think women and people with kids…They want their kids to eat healthy and have a portion of fruit every day. The kids like our lemonade and our fruit cups, because they are fresh. Kids always like fresh fruit.”
At Cardinali’s, Desiree told me they offered a popular wood fired margherita pizza with fresh basil and tomatoes and extra fresh veggies on top on request. At this stand, vegans could eat fried pineapple or watermelon, garlic fries, curly fries, and that’s about it… Anybody else ask for healthy food? “Health is a state of mind. The pizza is not Unhealthy,” she said, referring to the fresh ingredients. Desiree pointed out that portion control plays a big part, and that is the consumer’s job. But, “You don’t come to the fair for salad, you come to enjoy the fair food.”
Across the way, the deep-fried calamari stand had a generous, deep-fried veggie plate with artichokes, eggplant, onions and more. Of course, anything deep-fried involves batter and hot oil, but it’s healthier than frying dough around a hot dog or cheese.
At William Henry’s locale, they cooked up their open-faced sandwich called “the Hammer”, with layers of sautéed veggies, meat if you want it, cheese (or not) and the sauce of your choice, including a meat-free marinara. You could choose to be more healthy or less, but it wasn’t battered, fried, sugared and nutrient-free! I opted for the veggie version with marinara, and it had plenty of garlic, color, crunch and heartiness! William described the difficulty of bringing fresh food to the fair, saying there is no time to shop for local produce after 15-hour days, and gluten-free and other health foods are too expensive for fair-food pricing. “All I try to do is make something that people can feel good about. Who knows, they may push it and have an ice cream afterward, but… they’re at the fair, that’s what you are supposed to do,” he laughs. “I’ve run across some serious vegetarians, serious people watching my food coming out, and I have to tell them ‘We’re at the fair. It’s not ideal and gourmet,’ but if they eat that way, I can help.” Asked about the connection between the fair and farming, William said, “We’re from Fresno, so we know that fresh tomato taste. But where is that tomato? Maybe in the exhibits, but you can’t eat that one.”
Over at the adult drink section, a craft brewery offered a Caesar salad alongside their artisanal (but not gluten or dairy-free) pizza, and in the wine court, a cheese and fresh fruit platter was available. To be honest, under the shade-sails and misters, I was really tempted by the wine slushies (at least they are from local grapes) but I persevered in my search for fresh produce.
I expected to find more samples of California’s regional delicacies in the exposition building. Though the county exhibits were on display, few had a big show of produce. The booth touting strawberries had a documentary about folks who work in the fields, but no strawberries. There was honey-tasting, balsamic vinegar and specialty spreads to try, but you certainly couldn’t fill up on samples. The upcoming Pear Festival in Cortland (July 29th in Courtland) did offer freshly picked Bartlett pear samples to entice and inform fair-goers to visit their event. I asked organizer Haley Chan whether they serve deep-fried pears and got a good laugh, though pear pizzas and sandwiches will help promote the fresh goodness of pears. “We just love to celebrate something so fresh!”
I found Charles Reed representing Farm Fresh to You, a produce home-delivery service, sandwiched between phone services, bathroom remodelers, mortgage lenders, hot tub, and massage chair exhibitors. Where do you eat when you are here? “I brought my lunch. I tried to eat here on my first day, but I’m not going to pay $12 for corn-dogs. I’ll overpay for fruit, for something healthy, but I don’t want to overpay for something that will hurt me.”
Following signs to the farm area, where beautiful raised beds produce food that is donated to local food banks, I located the farm stand, where fresh peaches and juicy grapes were on display. Manager Angela Anderson said that they had tried a farmers’ market on the site, but it was too much for farmers to stay for the long hours for 17 days, so volunteers have taken on the work of providing fresh alternatives. She explained that some folks seek fresh fruit so they could offset that corn dog while others say “this is something I was looking for.” Fair employees and other vendors make the stand a daily stop. Families come for jumbo slices of watermelons and fruit bowls, sit at the picnic table to share as a family, hang out and cool off. What do you eat? Angela said, they are all about quality control and eating fresh fruit, but “We did have some of the calamari, and we like the garlic fries, and the wine slushies…”
It certainly took a lot of treasure-hunting to find the healthier gems here, but in spite of the fair’s trend away from the farm-fresh glories of California, there are some delicious options – whether for sticking to your lifestyle or doing damage control – even here in the heart of heart-stopping, coma-inducing junk food. The good news is, that all of the vendors with healthy options said they will be back again next year.
Into the belly of the beast! Through the smoke of grills and fryers!
Nobody can be a nutrition saint all the time, but what about the person who doesn’t or can’t eat deep-fried catfish and greasy, barbecued, over-sized turkey thighs? The vegetarians, vegans, diabetics, folks with heart conditions, lactose-intolerant and gluten-free folks? (Really there should be clearly marked defibrillators in the food court or an ambulance standing by.) I’m not looking for a booth with kale-and-quinoa-on-a-stick and beet-flavored shaved-ices. Just…something.