Strangest State Fair Food
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.
Spaghetti and Meatballs on a StickWisconsin State Fair
At the fair, cutlery can be a buzzkill. The secret to making portable the Italian American classic is in the preparation: strands of cooked spaghetti are added to the meatball mix, which, when formed, is garlic-battered, deep-fried, and dipped in marinara sauce.
Where: West Allis, WI
When: Fair opens early August.
Snap, Krackle, & Fluff on a StickFlorida State Fair
The Florida State Fair’s filling-buster features marshmallows skewered on either side of a Rice Krispie Treat. The whole thing is then dipped in batter, deep-fried, and topped with sweetened, condensed milk, powdered sugar, chocolate, and caramel. Better not mention this one to your dentist.
Fried JellybeansMassachussetts State Fair
Adapted from a version that debuted at the Texas State Fair, the “Big E”—New England’s largest fair, held in West Springfield, MA—rolls jellybeans in funnel cake batter, fries them until nicely browned, and tops with powdered sugar. Contents are soft, gooey, and tongue-scorchingly hot.
Where: West Springfield, MA
When: Fair opens late September.
Pork ParfaitIndiana State Fair
Like a Thanksgiving leftover mashup, the pork parfait layers potatoes, barbecue sauce, and pulled pork in an ice cream sundae glass for a savory lunch on-the-go. Eat it with a spork, of course.
Where: Indianapolis, IN
When: Fair opens early August.
Road KillOregon State Fair
Fried dough is a fair staple, whether it goes by the name doughboy, elephant ear, or funnel cake. At the Oregon State Fair in Salem, the Road Kill—a consistent best-seller—represents fried dough at its most abstract: deep-fried and flattened into the shape of a dead possum or rat and dressed with a variety of berry sauces and syrups to resemble oozing blood and guts.
Where: Salem, OR
When: Fair opens late August.
Alligator on a StickIllinois State Fair
This favorite at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield is deep-fried and skewered, teriyaki style. (Fans say alligator tastes like pork and is similar to veal in texture.) And, if that doesn’t satisfy your gator needs, one of the fair’s most popular nonculinary attractions is Swampmaster’s Gator Show, a sort of Siegfried & Roy act.
Where: Springfield, IL
When: Fair opens mid-August.
Deep-Fried ScorpionArizona State Fair
Don’t worry, it’s dead: battered, fried, and served plain or dipped in chocolate, fried scorpions have southwesterners getting their ultimate revenge on the desert menace with an adaptation of a Chinese delicacy. Other backyard creatures-turned-snack options include crickets, grasshoppers, and lizards.
Emu Tacos and Ostrich QuesadillasNorth Carolina State Fair
Where’s the beef? Calling on some of North Carolina’s more exotic birds, NC State Fair vendor Raintree Farms serves up emu tacos and ostrich quesadillas from one of the most eye-catching booths on the scene (you can’t miss the 15-foot inflatable ostrich head). “People want to experience something they may not come across every day in grocery stores or restaurants,” says fair official Andrea Ashby. “The fair gives them the freedom to be adventurous and splurge.”
Where: Raleigh, NC
When: Fair opens mid-October.
Spam CurdsMinnesota State Fair
Deep-Fried Pig EarsMinnesota State Fair
Minnesota State Fair regular Charlie Torgerson, who owns five franchises of Famous Dave’s BBQ, got famous for his chocolate-covered bacon, which he followed up with peach-glazed pigs’ cheeks. This year, Torgerson is frying up pigs’ ears, cut to look like curly fries, with a chipotle glaze. “He’s done everything but the squeal,” fair official Dennis Larson, who oversees new food, told the local press. “He’s running out of organs.”
Fried ButterTexas State Fair
It’s perhaps no surprise that some of the most egregiously artery-troubling fair food was invented in Texas, home of fried Coke and fried butter, courtesy of longtime fair concessionaire Abel Gonzales Jr. It sounds worse than it is: a “healthy” pat of butter battered and flash fried to produce a warm biscuit with a buttery center.
Sautéed MealwormsArizona State Fair
Billed as low in fat and high in protein—really—mealworms are cooked in olive oil, sautéed in garlic, and smothered in enough barbecue sauce to make you forget, sort of, that these are worms you’re eating. Arizona fairgoers-who-dare call it a delicacy, with a texture of fried onions and a taste similar to popcorn. Served on a bun or candied apple.