The North Carolina State Fair flaunts its fried-food glory. But there's a deeper food history beyond deep-fried Jell-O and Krispy Kreme burgers.
October in North Carolina feels incomplete without two classics: N.C. State's Howling Cow ice cream and ham biscuits from the First United Methodist Church Cary, which have been delicious fair staples for decades. Rooted in a spirit of community and agriculture education, these treats also tap into the fair's longer history and traditions.
Founded in 1853 by the State Agricultural Society, the fair originated to promote agriculture and industry in North Carolina. According to historian Melton Alonza McLaurin in his book, The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years, farmers and city folk from across the state came together to share and learn about crops, livestock, and new farming techniques and machinery. Of course, the fair has expanded to things like midway rides and games and grandstand shows, but agriculture education remains at its heart, and at the heart of the student-run Howling Cow Ice Cream, which serves its product daily at the campus's Dairy Bar.
Once a year, the rest of us can head to the Dairy Bar tent at the fair's Grandstand. This year's newest flavor is caramel apple crisp, a perfect autumn treat.
Since 1978, N.C. State's Food Science Club has been selling ice cream made on campus in the Feldmeier Dairy Processing Lab (or Dairy Bar). Gary Cartwright, director of N.C. State's Dairy Enterprise System, explains that students, faculty, and staff come together through hands-on experience every step of the way, from milking cows to serving ice cream. "It completes the loop of the education," Cartwright says.
Ice cream production takes place entirely on State's campus, beginning with the milk, which comes from about 170 cows at the Dairy Research and Teaching Farm. Next, it goes to the lab in Schaub Hall, where staff members process, mix, and package it in three-gallon tubs for the fair. Students pitch in along the way, learning about food safety, sanitation, and industry standards.
"Our job is to educate [students], give them experience, and send them back out into the world," Cartwright explains. Upon graduation, students often go on to work in the dairy and food science industries.
The Food Science Club buys the ice cream from the lab to sell at the Dairy Bar. The club helps students engage with faculty, the community, and the professional industry beyond the classroom.
"It really helps build a sense of community," says Leah Hamilton, a State student who cochairs the Dairy Bar committee. "[It] has been a big part of the club for decades. Dairy Bar is about tradition and about people loving ice cream."
Hamilton remembers standing in line for the ice cream as a child, and never leaving the fair without eating a scoop. When her mother attended State, she also scooped ice cream for the club.
Allison Pitts, another student, oversees outreach for the club. She says it's like a family, with a sense of camaraderie among the students and professors who volunteer their time, and that serving customers who are willing to wait thirty minutes to order her ice cream is a hectic but exhilarating experience. "You know something is good when people choose to spend their time waiting in line," she says.
The Dairy Bar directly supports future food science professionals; proceeds fund scholarships, professional development opportunities, and bringing industry speakers to club meetings.
Agriculture education may have been the original intent of the fair, but the fair's social appeal has been a pleasant side effect since the nineteenth century. The ham biscuits, made and sold by volunteers from First United Methodist Church Cary down on restaurant row, embody this sense of community. The church has been selling food at the fair since 1916. According to Jeanette Bell, who has volunteered by corralling other helpers for about twenty years, ladies from the church started the booth back then. It's uncertain whether they initially sold ham biscuits—Bell thinks it was soups and pies. At some point the spread evolved to include the church's now-famous biscuits.
"That's why people come," explains Bell, and the volunteers don't take this lightly. One ninety-three-year-old woman has been making biscuits for more than fifty years.
Another aging volunteer won't let her dedication waver for anything. "Doctors told her she could be walking down the street and be gone, and she doesn't care," Bell says. "She's gonna make biscuits!"
Bell recruits a hundred volunteers each day, though with this sort of dedication to the decades-old tradition, it's easy to get people to sign up. She sees this as a time for fun and fellowship and as a way to witness and be present for the community. All proceeds go to different missions, such as Communities in Schools of Wake County and past hurricane relief efforts.
The State Fair and its food have evolved in exciting ways, but Howling Cow ice cream and ham biscuits from First United Methodist Church Cary take us back to the lasting purpose of public engagement and agriculture education. Volunteers, students, church members, farmers, and all fairgoers can teach and learn from one another—and enjoy these tasty treats to boot.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ice Cream and Ham Biscuits"