It's the next-to-last night of the North Carolina State Fair, and my friends and I are stalking the fairgrounds in search of deep-fried butter. Everyone we've talked with claims that it's here, but no one's actually seen it.
Since Oprah Winfrey shared the flash-frozen sticks covered in batter with her audience at the Texas State Fair earlier this month, everyone has wondered if it will make its way to North Carolina. And rumors are flying around. "It's like the Loch Ness Monster," says James Rice of the booth Rice's Corn and Lemonade. "Everyone claims they've heard it's here, but no one's seen it."
It wouldn't be surprising if deep-fried butter showed up. I remember when I was a kid and saw news reports about this new novelty item at the fair called "fried dough." Even at a young age, it seemed weird that you could sell something that was the basic ingredient of most pastries by itself if you just deep-fried it.
Today, fried food forms the basis of most of the fair's cuisine-the official blog for the fair is even called "Deep Fried." As one wanders from one end of the fairgrounds to another, they might encounter the aforementioned fried dough, along with fried Oreos, fried candy bars (Snickers, Three Musketeers or Milky Way), fried pickles, fried strawberry cobbler bites, fried banana pudding bites, fried pecan pie, fried alligator tail, fried PB and J, fried Twinkies (also available frozen and dipped in chocolate) and the ever-popular fried cheeseburger on a stick.
The sticks are particularly important. The gourmands are like civil engineers of grease; if there's a way to get something on a stick, they'll find it. It's simply a matter of shoving a splint of bamboo through some flash-frozen consumable before coating it in the batter of choice (usually cornmeal), and sending it on to the cauldron of trans fats.
And if you're a vegetarian, like the friends with me, there's no need to worry-there's plenty of fries, bloomin' onions, and a whole booth that's nothing but fried vegetables. Really, the only thing missing is a booth where you can take non-fried food from other books and get it battered and fried. Several booth owners assure me the FDA would frown at this.
Forget the Ferris wheel or the many game booths at which you can win a stuffed Barack Obama toy-the greatest draw of the fair is as a gathering place for artery-clogging inventions. If food be pornography, than the N.C. State Fair is surely the gastronomical equivalent of Times Square in the 1980s. It's the sort of place so high-calorie that just breathing the midway air will raise your triglycerides.
Given the state's stats for obesity and diabetes, playing Russian roulette with your cardiovascular system may have replaced smoking as N.C.'s great life-shortening pastime (the first booth I stop at has a sticker reading "Hands off my health care!").
Most people who visit the fair claim it's a once-a-year indulgence. Clifford Casper, a graduate student at N.C. State who's just purchased a deep-fried Snickers on a stick, reacts with a horrified "No, absolutely not" when I ask if he'd eat like this on a regular basis. It's his second year attending the fair after moving down from Idaho. "I assumed this was just a Southern thing," he says.
When asked what the Snickers tastes like, he replies, "like ... a hot Snickers." As I walk away, his girlfriend takes a bite and proclaims it "disgusting" before digging into her own fried Twinkie.
The Snickers and Twinkie were purchased from perhaps the most popular deep-fried booth at the fair, one of several set up by the Murphy House restaurant in Louisburg. Steve Coker of Murphy House, who's overseeing much of the frying at this booth, says the popularity of their fried items has its basis in "novelty."
"It's just the way it's always been," says Coker, as a plate full of golden-brown fried pecan pie slices are put on a plate behind him, next to a mountain of hot ribbon fries. "People always want to try something new, even if they only try it once."
Greg Seamster, who helps manage the Murphy House booths, agrees. "A lady at the home-brewed soda booth next door said this was her first soda in three years," Seamster says. "From a state standpoint, people want their yearly treat.
From Seamster and Coker, I learn a lot about how they decide what new items to fry each year. The process involves a variety of factors, including selecting items that win contests at other state fairs, and determining which items they can purchase in bulk for frying that won't leave them with a ton of leftovers afterward.
"We had deep-fried Coke one year," Seamster says (it was funnel cake with Coke poured in the batter, giving it a candy-like quality). "That was a one-year thing. We had fried Nutter Butter last year, but we're not doing it again."
Seamster admits he has a fondness for the fried cheeseburger himself: "If you like a corndog, it's the same batter." He balks when asked about the fair's most mysterious item: "I definitely would not eat deep-fried butter."
Butter or no, plenty of other gastronomical snuff films have found their way onto the fairgrounds this year. The big buzz item is chocolate-covered bacon, strips of which are dubbed "Pig Lickers" (yes, it's on a stick). I purchase a strip from Steph's Strawberry Creations, a booth famous for its old-fashioned strawberry shortcake and the large inflatable strawberry on its roof. Its sign advertises a fruit drink with "WHIZ! It's something you drink, not something you take."
Chocolate-covered bacon winds up tasting like, well, chocolate and bacon. It's good bacon, anyway. The booth's proprietor, Stephani Emmons, says it's her biggest seller: "We debated also serving chocolate-covered meatballs, but decided against it." She found out about the product after hearing about it being served at other fairs, but isn't sure where the original idea came from. "I think it started with Homer Simpson," she says.
My friends opt to taste the new Murphy House on-a-stick concoction, deep-fried HoHos. The result tastes a bit like a chocolate funnel cake-the product is liquefied inside the battered shell, removing the layered elegance of the original junk food.
Later, we encounter another bacon-based treat at Chef D'Lite's, which boasts the aforementioned strawberry cobbler and banana pudding bites (sadly, they do not have their much-vaunted deep-fried cookie dough in stock).
The product in question is "chicken-fried bacon," which takes America's favorite fried breakfast treat and does it one better by coating it in batter and serving it with a choice of either ranch or honey-mustard dressing. I dare a single strip; unlike its chocolate-covered counterpart, its bacon-y taste is squelched by layers of fried batter.
As the night wears on, our quest for deep-fried butter goes nowhere, though every single person we meet claims they've heard it was here. But though the instant coronary proves as elusive as sighting a ghost orchid or a Bachman's Warbler, the journey proves to be its own reward as we discover the fair's best-kept secret: Deep-Fried Roast Corn (on a stick, natch).
Served at the aforementioned Rice's Corn and Lemonade, the concoction takes the familiar fair treat and dips it in a corn batter with corn flakes, along with garlic and Parmesan cheese. The result is as juicy and tasty as regular corn, with a batter that's got some actual flavor to it. Even my vegetarian friends are horrified by this, but soon they're digging in. And given how unhealthy regular corn has become, frying it can't make it that much worse.
Perhaps it is North Carolina's fate to best-known for foods that will eventually kill those who eat it. On the other hand, a casual glance around the fair reveals plenty of other booths selling New York -style pizza, Cajun-style gator, Philly cheese steaks and even hot Wisconsin fried cheese. Our dietary adventures may not be just an expression of our state or even our Southern-ness-it might well be the truest indicator of what makes us American. Anyone up for a booth that sells deep-fried turkey legs next year?