The N.C State Fair kicks off Thursday, and while the stomach-churning rides are intended as the main entrée, it's clear that the gobs of funnel cakes, sausage dogs, exotic burgers, candied apples and ice cream are intended to be more than a mere side dish.
This is a fact not lost on families with food allergies. But we've found that a little pre-planning, creativity and post-fair treats can ensure that no one feels left out.
First, come prepared. Andrea Ashby, an N.C. State Fair spokesperson, says there are no rules against bringing your own food. "If you're going to pack a sandwich or Lunchables or something you know your family can eat, you're certainly welcome to bring that in with you," she says.
In addition to Benadryl, Epi-Pens, hand sanitizer and wipes, my husband and I always bring a backpack stocked with bags of "safe" pretzels, water, cereal bars, Dum-Dums and popped Orville Redenbacher's "Natural" popcorn.
Between them, Ty, 10, and Talia, 5, are allergic to dairy, eggs, tree nuts and peanuts. They can snack on the treats all day and we can stave off cravings easily until lunch.
Last year there was a booth across from the N.C. State ice cream stand where you could refill any drink container with a beverage of your choice for $1. We'll be searching them out again.
Come early. Midway rides open at 10 a.m. We make it a point to go on a weekday when morning crowds are the thinnest, and we have a better chance of speaking one-on-one with vendors about whether their foods are safe. I always ask how the food is prepared; what kind of oil they use; if their booth carries a particular allergen; and if, for instance, fried dough is prepared in the same oil as, or anywhere near, nuts or other allergens.
Look for familiar vendors. My son and daughter can both eat fries at Chick-fil-A with no reactions. My son can eat the nuggets. Each year, we know the Chick-fil-A booth is a safe option for our kids. Domino's pizza is another familiar name along the midway.
Hot dogs are usually a safe option for my son (be sure to ask about milk ingredients). My husband, son and I love the malt vinegar fries at Al's French Fries. My son, who is in a peanut desensitization study but still avoids all nuts, has been able to eat them with no problem.
There's also a booth we trust that offers fried dough and powdered sugar that are free of nuts.
Do your research. Lesley Stanford, a pediatric nutritionist at Duke University Medical Center, suggests using the State Fair's "Food & Fun Finder" page to search for information about particular foods. Stanford notes that certain vendors may carry a higher risk of cross-contamination and are often best avoided altogether. These can include self-service stations; Asian food vendors (for nut, wheat, soy and fish allergies); African, Thai and Indian food vendors (for nut allergies); baked items (for nut, milk, egg and wheat allergies); and ice cream (for nut, milk, egg and wheat allergies).
Keep it simple. If you're allergic to milk, egg, peanuts and tree nuts, Stanford suggests looking for simple foods such as baked sweet potatoes offered throughout the midway, fresh apple cider at Heritage Circle, honey cotton candy in the Kerr Scott Building, Mt. Olive pickles in the Commercial Building and muscadine grape juice and fresh-squeezed lemonade offered at multiple stands.
For children who avoid wheat or gluten for celiac disease, try Al's French Fries. Watch out for candy and caramel (milk) apples. Many of those stands contain loose nuts and the risk of cross-contamination is high.
Double check. We check with the vendors each year to ensure that nothing has changed.
Make your own treats. Sheri Castle, a local cookbook author, writer and cooking instructor, found a recipe for dairy-, egg-, soy- and gluten-free caramel apples. She suggests replacing the nuts with a safe, crunchy cereal to offer texture. The recipe is on our Big Bite blog.
Stanford found a recipe for gluten- and dairy-free caramel candies at AdventuresofaGlutenFreeMom.com.
Find a gluten-free, vegan corn dog recipe at Bakingdom.com.
Plan a post-fair meal at home. Simply avoid the food hype and concentrate on rides, games and exhibits. When you get home, Castle says, have a Family Fair of Favorite Foods for dinner or the next day.
You might consider ordering a barbecue spread from a local restaurant or serving grilled burgers, sausages, onions, peppers, corn on the cob, homemade potato wedges and fried biscuit dough rolled in sugar.
You'll save money on overpriced food and be able to use the savings to savor more rides.
Joyce Clark Hicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.