Fair food defies dietary fashion

Boone County Fairgoers are hungry, not trendy.
Thursday, July 22, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:28 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

In many ways, a county fair’s appeal lies in harkening back to simpler times, before hour-long commutes, color-coded terror levels, and the information scroll at the bottom of your evening newscast.

Strolling through the Boone County Fair this year, it becomes apparent that the fair harkens back to a time before dietary hysteria condemned all the foods that fairgoers wait all year to eat.

The popular Atkins Diet (and others named after glamorous places that probably don’t even have access to a really good corndog, such as the South Beach Diet and the Hollywood Diet) has outlawed the sugar and carbohydrate heavy foods that are doled out and devoured by fairgoers everywhere.

The Atkins Diet limits the intake of carbohydrates and sugar (your body’s normal sources of energy) so that your body will burn fat for energy instead.

It’s the reason McDonald’s will no longer “Super Size It” and why Burger King serves burgers without a bun. These carbohydrates and sugars (along with the saturated fat and cholesterol that comes with deep frying) abound at a county fair.

A corndog has about 460 calories, 170 from fat and 59 from carbohydrates. A roll of cotton candy at the fair is an even bigger no-no. It has about 370 calories, all from sugar, which is a type of carbohydrate.

Fortunately, no one’s fun is being spoiled. The current stigma against such festive foods doesn't seem to be scaring many people off. The food vendors at the Boone County Fair can still expect hungry patrons to stand in line outside their brightly colored and lit trailers, salivating for a fried or otherwise speedily prepared food item on a stick.

Indeed, Missourians do not seem to be excessively health conscious, or even health oriented. According to the American Obesity Association, as of 2001 Missouri was the 10th most obese state in the country.

A 2002 ABC News story listed St. Louis as the nation’s 9th fattest city. Kansas City was listed as the 17th fattest city. Statistics like these show that most Missourians would choose a snow cone over soy milk any day.

Though many fairgoers with corndog-in-hand are familiar with the low-carb diets, they don’t seem to be too concerned about them. In fact, most see the fair as a vacation from their usual dietary regimen.

Bridget Jones, a cotton candy enthusiast, said she doesn't hold back when sampling fair food.

“I let it go. It’s a free day,” she said. Jones cites peer pressure’s effect in keeping fair food alive in an era of increased health consciousness.

“It’s a carnival and everyone is eating everything, and you just want to fit in the crowd,” she said.

Fairgoer Tammy Redden (whose favorite fair foods are funnel cake and snow cones) said she counts calories in the days leading up to the fair so that she will have a few to spare when it comes time to splurge.

“I save up all week to be able to go to the fair,” she said. Greg Nagel, a fairgoer who enjoys funnel cake, said that eating fair food is “free time to enjoy life for a bit.”

Certainly, fair food is just as much a part of the fair tradition as the contests and the rides, and this is probably why they don‘t ride on the tip of the current wave of dietary fashion. Often, they were invented before modern notions of healthy eating existed.

Cotton candy was invented by William Morrison and John C. Wharton in 1897. These candy makers from Nashville, Tennessee invented a machine that heated sugar in a spinning bowl with tiny holes in it. As the caramelized sugar was forced though the holes, it hardened, forming thin strands of sugar that melt in your mouth.

Instead of “cotton candy” Morrison and Wharton opted for the more exotic sounding name, “Fair Floss” and introduced their invention at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

Sources differ on the exact origins of the corndog, but according to State Fair Foods, it was invented by Carl and Neil Fletcher, two brothers from Texas who were offered a food vendor space at the 1938 Texas State Fair in Dallas.

The brothers had seen a Dallas street vendor bake hotdogs in cornmeal batter that were shaped like ears of corn. Needing a novel and innovative food item to sell at the fair, the brothers adapted this recipe by deep frying the hotdogs in cornmeal batter and putting it on a stick for portability, and the corndog was born.

The exact origins of the funnel cake are even harder to track down. In fact, fried breads were even popular dishes for the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The earliest authentic recipe for what we call funnel cake appeared in Germany in 1879.

The Pennsylvania Dutch (Germans) are credited with bringing the recipe to the New World, as the first mention of funnel cakes in English appeared in 1935 in a cookbook called Pennsylvania Dutch Cookery.

So, funnel cakes in some form have been kept around by the Greeks, Romans, Germans, and most recently modern fairgoers. In the hands of Mid-Missourians, it should be safe for quite a while.

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