And, of course, there’s the food. Concession after concession hawks fried this and greasy that; vendors offer samples of their wares; and everywhere you look, somebody seems to be gnawing on a chocolate-dipped banana. The fair is probably the locus of the highest concentration of sheer calories, not to mention deep-fryer oil, in the state. It’s easy to end up feeling bloated and slimy, like a barely human version of Templeton, the rat from Charlotte’s Web. The trick is to start slowly, choose carefully and—take it from me—avoid the deep-fried Oreos at all costs.
We began abstemiously, wandering dazedly through the midway and resisting the siren song of its truly bad food stands. On the way to Expo Center, we passed a booth promoting Horizon organic milk. Parents, take note: If your kids are sugar-crashing, there you can get milk, yogurt and other reasonably healthy snacks. Similarly, the California Foodstyle Building is a haven for un-fried options. You’ll find bags of nuts, dried fruit and juice on offer, as well as free samples from sponsors.
But you don’t go to the fair to eat dried fruit. You go to eat crap, and that is precisely what we moved on to after a few handfuls of free almonds. Serious carnival foods are found along a corridor that stretches from the main gate to the rodeo arena—a concessionaires miracle mile.
When facing down this many booths, with their enticements of bright lights, cooking smells and the occasional barker, you need a strategy. Ours was twofold: First, take a circuit of the place before committing; and second, resist the lure of the lights. My theory is that there is an inverse relationship between the number of flashing bulbs and the quality of the food.
The best options all seemed to be at the far end, near the rodeo arena. My husband wanted a blooming onion. My mother wanted Greek food from a stand called The Mediterranean. I was simply overwhelmed, but I was intrigued by an unassuming stand proclaiming itself home of “the original soft taco, since 1947.” Then I spotted a Southern-style place and headed off for some catfish on a stick. You’ve got to get something on a stick, and that sounded better than the egg rolls.
We reconvened to devour our picks. My mom’s gyro plate was the best, with a fresh, crisp green salad, chunks of cool feta, juicy meat and chewy pita. It came with dill-laced spanakopita. The phyllo was soft, but the filling was excellent.
My catfish was good, too. The cornmeal crust was super-crisp, and inside was an actual piece of fish, not a processed fish stick. The vinegary long-cooked greens were flavorful, but perhaps too sour.
The blooming onion was predictably meretricious and inferior to onion rings in several ways. For one, it actually dripped grease when you pulled off a piece. For another, there were gobs of un-fried batter in the crevices. And, for a third, it needed salt.
My husband decided he needed more fried food and headed off to the Monterey Bay Calamari stand for fried squid and zucchini. On the latter, the soft, puffy batter peeled right off, leaving thick spears of juicy squash. The former were crisp and not bad, but they needed lemon. I couldn’t resist a soft taco. It was the size of a very fat cigar—the corn tortilla filled with goopy, peppery ground beef and wilting lettuce.
A walk was definitely in order before dessert, so we visited more exhibits. Afterward, we strolled through Albertsons Wine Country. My husband’s berry-merlot wine smoothie was overpriced at $5, but it had a deep, dusky, not-too-sweet berry flavor, like Jamba Juice for grown-ups. I tried a few tastes at the counter, finishing up with a 2003 St. Supery moscato.
This lovely, sweet wine would have been a perfect—if incongruously soignée—dessert, but I’m unable to leave well enough alone, so we made a beeline for the funnel cakes. While my mom lined up at the tiny, nearly lights-free Pennsylvania Dutch stand, I felt obliged to try the fried Oreos at a copiously blinking stand. The fried Oreos were puffy, soft throughout and so utterly disgusting that my husband refused to look at me after I took a bite. Obviously, I should have known better, but I felt I should try them in the name of research. (Next time, I’ll go with the fried candy bars.)
The funnel cake, however, bore out my theory about the relationship of a stand’s lighting to food quality. It was light and not too greasy. The apple topping had a nasty chemical taste, but luckily we’d gotten the other half topped with cinnamon sugar. The simple, sugary fried dough was quite pleasant.
By then, we had entered into the traditional state-fair grease haze, and as the fireworks began, it was time to go home. The hike to the parking lot refreshed us slightly, but we still felt a bit like Templeton as we slumped into the car—just as one should after the fair. I’m already looking forward to next year.