For some, the North Carolina State Fair is all about the rides, or the racing pigs, or the chance to win a child-size Mr. Wuf at the ring toss.
But for others, like Beth Falkner and her group of friends, it is all about the food – especially the latest deep-fried treat.
“We just go for the food and nothing else,” Falkner, 31, of Raleigh, said.
Falkner and her friends, who attended William Peace University together, are so serious about their fair eating plan that they actually map it out beforehand. It usually goes like this: the new deep-fried “it” food, roasted corn, mini-doughnuts and ham biscuits.
North Carolina’s state fair is no different from any of the others – from Minnesota to Texas – where foods are battered, fried and often impaled on a stick. Vendors seem to try to outdo each other each year with the latest, most outlandish treat. In years past, we’ve seen deep-fried Coke, macaroni and cheese, Ho Hos and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
At this year’s monthlong Texas state fair – the birthplace of much of the fried-food innovation – deep-fried jambalaya took the prize for best tasting and a deep-fried bacon cinnamon roll won most creative in its annual food contest.
Murphy House, the annual innovator when it comes to fried foods at the N.C. State Fair, is bringing the deep-fried bacon cinnamon roll to this year’s fair. (Three small cinnamon rolls are fried, glazed and sprinkled with bacon.)
Other new items in the running for the can-you-believe-it treat are deep-fried Girl Scout Cookies (Caramel deLites, or the cookie formerly known as Samoas), deep-fried Hostess cupcakes and deep-fried Swiss Rolls.
On the savory side, new items include Philly cheese steak egg rolls, pig butt on a stick and alligator and shark kabobs.
Others can’t be swayed by the new fad foods. They have a routine and they’re sticking to it, like Jack Nales of McGee’s Crossroads.
Nales, 55, likes to start with a ham biscuit from the Westover United Methodist Church stand.
“It’s always best to have that first as a foundation for everything that follows,” Nales said.
Then he gets in line for some N.C. State University ice cream, followed by roasted corn from a nearby stand.
“That’s the one I have to go to because you get it right off the fire and they drench it in butter. It’s better than anyone else’s,” he said.
Nales’ last must-have treat: a fat kosher dill pickle from the Mt. Olive stand in the Commercial building.
It seems like Nales has covered all the bases for a great state fair eating experience: salty, sweet, fat and sour.
These suggestions for the best places to get the classic fair foods come from experienced fairgoers:
• Roasted corn: The Old Style Foods stand serves only two things – roasted corn and drinks. It is near the Rabbit Barn and across and down from N.C. State’s Howling Cow ice cream stand in the Hobbies and Crafts building.
• Corn dogs: The best hand-dipped corn dogs are served by Lorene Clark’s booth across from 1853 Grille among the row of permanent food booths, north of Dorton Arena and mainly occupied by churches.
• Funnel cakes: People rave about the funnel cakes served at 1853 Grille, which is on the eastern end of the permanent food booths.
• Ham biscuit: Our experts couldn’t decide which was better – the ham biscuits by First United Methodist Church of Cary or Westover United Methodist Church. That means you can’t go wrong at either. Both are located in the row of permanent food booths.
• Sausage and peppers: The Butcher Boy’s stand serves the best as well as a good steak and cheese sandwich. It is directly across from the N.C. State ice cream stand in the Hobbies and Crafts building.
• Ice cream: A trip to the fair isn’t complete without sampling the Howling Cow ice cream made at N.C. State University; located on the corner of the Hobbies and Crafts building.
• Mini-doughnuts: Doris Drury has been serving these miniature doughnuts at the fair for 32 years. The conveyor belt of doughnuts frying in hot oil will captivate children. Drury’s iced tea is also excellent. Her booth is located on the north side of the Jim Graham Building.
• Fried fish sandwich: I & M Concessions sells a farm-raised tilapia sandwich at a booth across from the waterfall outside Dorton Arena.
A cheapskate’s guide
You don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy the food at the fair. Here’s a low-cost guide to free or cheap foods:
• Milk: Enjoy a state fair tradition and buy a glass of milk for $1 inside the Kerr Scott Building near Gate 11.
• Muscadine slushy: Lu Mil Vineyard serves muscadine grape slushies for $1 inside the Kerr Scott Building.
• Livermush: Neese’s Sausage Co. hands out free samples of the North Carolina delicacy on crackers inside the Kerr Scott building.
• Hush puppies: House-Autry hands out free hush puppies inside the Education building and at the grist mill in Heritage Circle.
• Roasted peanuts: The Exchange Club of North Raleigh sells bags of roasted peanuts inside the Education building but also hands out free samples.
• Pickles: Mt. Olive Pickle Co. sells pickles for 50 cents each inside the Commercial Building.
Not every food at the fair is deep fried. These stands offer healthier fare.
• Neomonde, Raleigh’s longtime Lebanese deli, offers salads, hummus, beef or chicken kebabs and falafel.
The booth is located across from the 1853 Grille among the row of permanent food booths
• John the Greek offers gyros, shish kebabs and Greek salads.
It is located near the entrance to the main midway and around the corner from the eastern end of the row of permanent food booths.
• Anderson and Daughters sells baked potatoes, which without all the toppings could be a healthy option. The booth is in front of the main entrance to the Exposition Center.