Each summer in Indiana, around late July, people start asking each other one question: “What are they deep-frying at the state fair this year?” Though the trend has been going on for at least 15 years, Hoosiers haven’t lost interest in the absurd concoctions advertised on tall flags above the rows of chugging mobile concession stands. In 2003, it was the Snickers bar, which looked like a corndog until you bit in. Mid-decade, fried Pepsi got lots of buzz. Turns out it was basically a doughnut that tasted like, well, Pepsi. A few years later, Reese’s cups were the star. And in the early 2010s, with red velvet all the rage, concessionaires offered deep-fried red velvet Oreos.
There are many parts of a proper fair visit. There’s the parking shuffle, where temporary workers wave you to a grassy spot. There’s the walk inside, when you think of everything you want to see. It’s almost always hot, and usually humid too. Just the walk will make you start to second-guess your plans, but you keep on going. There are animals to see, people to watch, free samples to enjoy, and of course, something fried to try.
Although the Indiana State Fair is largely a celebration of rural culture, it takes place in the middle of the capital city, between busy roads and gritty neighborhoods. A great deal of fair-goers are from Indianapolis and feel like tourists in their own state when they walk past the pungent swine barn. Kids can’t help but touch the soft, bored sheep, curious what they feel like and if they’ll get mad. A walk past the grandstand might come with an aural assault from a tractor pull. You might gawk at the tan teenagers showing their livestock in the coliseum. Many of them come from hours away and sleep on cots next to their animals each night, fans whirring and moving the straw scattered on the ground. They walk around holding hands with their boyfriend or girlfriend, wearing plaid shirts or cowboy hats, lost in each other’s company. You wonder what it would be like to grow up on a farm outside a small town. It might as well be a different universe, it seems. The stuff of John Mellencamp songs. You suspect these kids would rather be sucking on a chili dog outside the Tastee-Freeze.
But then, your thoughts are taken over by the sight of the concession stands. Everything looks delicious. Many of them simultaneously look disgusting, like the donut burger or the mashed potato parfait. Surely there’s a German word for deliciously disgusting food. The cooks have shown no restraint, and the fair-goers are unlikely to either. The fair only comes once a year, after all.
It’s even hotter when you line up for that novel fried treat; you’re in the sun and the stand’s motor is humming while the vats of cooking oil bubble up heat. You eye the desserts as they’re handed out. You debate about getting two. When you make it to the line, though, you’re confident in your choice. You’re handed a laminated number and shuffle to the other side of the stand, where your impatience threatens to boil over. The midway’s organs and bells and screams and carnival barkers are nearby, but you’re watching the stand like a dog watches a steak on the dinner table.
At long last (actually about 4 minutes later), your number is called. A sweaty worker slides a paper tray towards you. Everything is covered in powdered sugar, and soon you will be too. Perhaps you sit down, perhaps you just stand there taken in by the long-awaited fried confection in your hands. You don’t even notice the smell from the bovine pavilion. You tear off a large bite. It’s melting in your mouth, a kaleidoscope of flavors. Sweet, greasy, heavy batter. Hot, gooey melted chocolate or caramel or peanut butter inside, perhaps, or a softened cookie. Or, in the case of deep-fried butter or Kool-aid, nothing but flavor. The first half is incredibly satisfying. The third quarter is when you start to feel a little wary. Your fingers are coated in oil and powder. You’ve just eaten how much sugar? How many carbs? Even those with laissez-faire approaches to food start wondering if they’ll feel the heartburn or the sugar headache first. But, you waited all year for this. So you eat every last bite.
As you stroll past the ever-present Ecuadorian folk band playing incongruously soothing music, you realize your friend also mentioned deep-fried brownies. You’re pretty sure you tried those 2 or 3 years ago, but hell, those are probably really good. The fair only comes once a year. You turn around and slink into the line outside another fried concession stand. There’s no shame. It’s the Indiana State Fair.