Posted on Thursday, August 14, 2014 10:24 AM
Peak of the Season
Tomatoes taste like tomatoes! Sweet corn is sweet! Ice cream becomes a daily necessity. Yes, it is the end of summer, which also means that state fair season is getting into full swing.
As writers who have spent a career honoring normal restaurants where normal people eat normal food, the outrageous indulgence of state fairs is a grand exception to our creed. There is not much that is normal about a good state fair. The whole point is to award excess: the biggest swine, the strongest oxen, the most meticulous map of the Americas made entirely of different colored beans. These joyful celebrations are loud, vulgar, folksy, and all about eating large. Of course, nagging food nannies find them horrifying. Fears about nutritional correctness are anathema on a midway grazing gauntlet of chicken-fried bacon (Texas), scones and raspberry jam (Washington state), Iowa pork chops, and fried dough yardsticks (New York). Not to mention fried candy bars, fried ice cream, fried butter, and fried Oreos.
And, oh, the fine art at a great state fair! Sculpture, in particular. Butter sculpture, that is – a specialty of dairy-state fairs, nowhere more wonderful than in Minnesota, where delicious, USDA Grade-A salted butter is transformed into busts of the state's several regional dairy princesses, vying for the top title, "Princess Kay of the Milky Way." They sit in a refrigerated studio all day swaddled in heavy winter jackets for sculptor Linda Christensen, who turns a 68-pound block of butter into a princess's likeness. The last time we visited the Minnesota fair, a sitting princess was kind enough to offer us tastes of the artist's shavings on a paper plate. Cold, dairy-fresh butter melting on your tongue on a hot day at the state fair: that's the way the end of summer tastes in Minnesota.
Do You Love Food Trucks?
Are food trucks the most fun, ever? Or are they only opportunities to wait in a long line for food prepared under dubious circumstances and presented in a sloppy way that practically guarantees drippage on clothes or dashboard? The answer, of course, depends on the truck. During a recent trip to the Idaho Panhandle, we were delighted to find Oak Street Court – a small park in Sandpoint where a handful of trucks offered everything from chili dogs to Thai banana crepes. As at a grand cafeteria, we inevitably find such clusters of trucks frustrating because they offer too many good things for one appetite to sample. We loved the Old Tin Can's burgers and Lily Pad shave ice, but never did taste Oak Street Court's Bad J's Texas Barbecue or Tug's smokie dogs. We anticipate similar problems during the October Roadfood.com trip to Charlotte, where "Food Truck Friday" hosts the city's most illustrious mobile food wagons, including Papi Queso's outrageous grilled cheese sandwiches and Southern Cake Queen's Key lime pound cake.
Paul Mannion, chef/driver of the Green Grunion, a San Diego style burrito truck that usually appears in Kenosia Park in Danbury, Connecticut, did explain one hugely good thing about food trucks: they give restaurateurs the opportunity to launch a business without the expense of a fixed location. That reminded us that Super Duper Weenie, now one of the state's great hot dog emporia, started life as a truck (and still is a truck, for catering events).
If you are reading this newsletter, chances are good you take pictures of your food. We've been doing that for some 40 years, and when we started, taking Polaroids, 35mm slides, and large-format photos of everything we came across, people in restaurants thought we were either inspectors from the health department or certifiably insane. Why would anyone want to take a picture of a piece of pie or a chicken-fried steak? Of course, this was before the internet and the Food Network, and long before compact digital cameras. Here is a photo of our first encounter with real Texas barbecue, back in the early 1970s, at a place called Miller's, in Waelder:
Now, of course, lots of people photograph their meals, albeit less conspicuously. Is this a good thing? Or is it (are we) as annoying as people who blab on their cell phones in a nearby booth? In any case, I'll never regret taking this happy photo of two coffee-armed waitresses at the old Southern Kitchen in Charleston, West Virginia: