(This is our second dispatch from the North Carolina State Fair. Read our first one here.)
Some people pine for eternal youth, or throwing a winning touchdown at the Super Bowl, or waking up as a Kardashian. Since my family moved here from Elizabeth City in the mid-eighties, we have only missed the State Fair a couple of times, and only then because of literal life-or-death predicaments.
Nowhere else can you see the entire spectrum of humanity that makes up our state, from farmers to socialites to hipsters. Inside one building you’ll find the Daughters of the American Revolution cheek by jowl with a guy who wears a Madonna head-set and wants to sell you the world’s greatest and most expensive rag. Inside another, you’ll find a pumpkin bigger than a small apartment in Durham. But, it’s the food—the kind of food that I’d never, under any other circumstances, consider eating. (The fair's soft opening is today. Get there early.)
I was nervous about trying the firecracker shrimp with Asian slaw from Captain Neil’s Seafood Shack
. The folks there assured me it wasn’t too spicy, but I’ve learned through many painful experiences, that “not too spicy” for the rest of the population is “Why? Oh God, why?” for me.
But they were really good. The shrimp wasn’t overcooked, which is no mean feat, and under the zippy, sweet sauce, the coating on the shrimp was crispy like quality tempura. I’m not sure what made the slaw Asian exactly, but it was the prefect creamy foil.
As a woman with Italian running through her veins, I firmly believe that fish and cheese together is obscene. So the dish from The Cheese Curd Shack
surprised the hell out of me: crab cake cheese curds, which sounds all sorts of wrong on paper. When the young lady served me, she told me to eat it right away. I liked that. She had pride in the product and wanted me to taste it at its best. And it turned out to be really good; delicate, crispy, cheesy, without a hint of fishiness.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of clunkers. Hot Chix Hot Cakes and Chicken
had something called Breakfast All Day (BAD). It was described as a taco with a pancake acting as tortilla, filled with scrambled eggs, a chicken tender, grated cheese, and a maple drizzle. Here’s the thing: If your name has chicken in it twice, the chicken should be epic—fresh, crispy, juicy, and hand-breaded. This clucker was a tired corn meal-breaded wannabe that I know came from a factory, ready for the fryer. The pancake was fine, the scrambled eggs were also fine; moist and fluffy. The cheese was so sparse as to make no impact at all. And I couldn’t find the maple, I didn’t even know it was supposed to be there until I read the description of the dish. It really needed some type of sauce, because when all the ingredients were eaten together, it was quite dry.
So, my new ironclad rule for fair food is this: either invent something the world has never tasted before, or, if you’re making something that is not only familiar but pretty basic, it better be a slamming, damn good version of it. Another disappointment was the absence of the Poutine Gourmet
, because, poutine.
If there's one new vendor I'm pretty darn jazzed about this year, it’s Anne’s Dumplings
. You might have seen the company's red-and-yellow boxes filled with old-fashioned pot pie dumplings in the freezer section of the supermarket. They also create this amazing nectar called Anne’s One Dressing. I lack sufficient superlatives to communicate how good this stuff is. We put it on my secret handmade buttermilk chicken tenders, among a slew of other things. Sadly, I’ve haven’t been able to procure this sauce anywhere except the Goodness Grows in N.C. Ag Fest in the spring. In a curious policy, they only sell it in Piggly Wigglys east of Rocky Mount. Having recently finished the last of our stash, we had been dreading an interminable eight months before I could score some more. Now I just have to wait until the fair opens.
There are three other treats I highly recommend investigating. Al’s French fries
offers up the best version of potatoes cooked in a vat of boiling oil. It’s the first thing we buy upon arriving. Totally worth the burned fingers and tongues. D'vine Foods'
muscadine cider slushy is sweet and tart and addictive. They usually can be found in the Commercial or Education buildings at the main entrance fronting Hillsborough Street. Finally, the fudge at All American Fudge
in the new Market Place is in a class of its own. There are other fudge purveyors, but don’t be fooled. This is the kind of fudge angels make at slumber parties. I buy pounds, then triple-wrap and freeze them to be rationed out throughout the year. It’s the last thing I buy before leaving the fair each year.
So visit the fair, and when you see some old chick with burned fingers and a grape juice mustache swooning like a Southern belle and/or dancing around like a sugar-jacked four-year-old, that’ll be me.
Come over, say hi!