Smoked lizard dipped in barbecue sauce. Deep-fried crickets. Fudge-covered scorpion. Nope, these aren’t the latest exotic street food offerings from half a world away. These multilegged dishes are prepared by a vendor known as Chef John at the Arizona State Fair, held every fall in Phoenix.
State fairs, of course, are synonymous with fried foods. And while the usual staples like funnel cakes remain, cooking up unusual options has become a sport in itself. At fairs across the U.S., concessionaires delight in one-upping each other with the strangest, fattiest, most questionably edible snacks, many of which fall into one of two genres: “deep-fried” or “on a stick.” (Some are both, like deep-fried M&Ms on a stick.)
“I want to be surprised and amazed,” says Sue Stoecklein, commercial exhibits director for the Kansas State Fair, who’s looking forward to this year’s Krispy Kreme burger, which sandwiches an all-beef patty, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo in between two glazed doughnuts.
Food booths at fairs emerged around 1900, mostly just selling local meats and baked goods. But the introduction of such treats as waffle cones, cotton candy, hot dogs, and Dr. Pepper at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis ushered in an unending era of novelty foods. In 1942, Texas debuted the foodsicle concept with the corn dog. And in the early ’80s, concessionaires set out to prove that nearly everything—pickle juice included—could be served on a stick.
Today, the market for sticks and deep fryers remains strong. In Dallas, frying the unfryable has become a personal challenge for Texas State Fair concessionaire Abel Gonzales Jr., who’s made his home state proud with creations like fried butter and fried Coke. The Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, meanwhile, offers more than 70 foods on a stick, including Scotch eggs—hard-boiled and wrapped in sausage meat and bread crumbs, then deep-fried—and Key lime pie. Most concessionaires will go to great lengths to get it right: Stoecklein points to her fried green tomato guy who drove overnight to Missouri for better produce.
While admirable attempts have been made to implement some healthier options—this year the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines will feature salad on a stick—dieting isn’t encouraged, and many salad and health-wrap stands aren’t invited back for a second year.
So check out these odd foods when you visit your next state fair. And if you end up in Phoenix, wondering how to eat that deep-fried scorpion, stick to Chef John’s advice: start with the head.