I journeyed to Springfield for the Illinois State Fair last weekend on a quest to eat the holy grail of decadent fair foods: the deep-fried Twinkie. Hostess’s recent decision to launch a supermarket version of the treat usually only found at fairgrounds felt like a minor act of blasphemy, and I sought redemption for the snack cake’s spongy soul.
Context matters. Certain Chicago restaurants serve the low-brow delicacy, but the only setting in which to truly enjoy something as inherently absurd as a deep-fried Twinkie is at a state fair—a place where people stroll around in sweltering heat and play skeeball in an attempt to win four-foot-tall stuffed animals, where adults wear hats made to look like smiling piles of poop, where crowds admire a life-size cow sculpture made of butter. A state fair is a public celebration of shamelessness in which guilty pleasures are consumed in a judgment-free collective atmosphere while the priests of good taste remain outside the gates.
When I say good taste, of course, I don’t mean to imply, conversely, that fair food literally tastes bad. Quite the opposite. It’s that state fair food menus mostly read like a response to an unspoken dare to get a pearl-clutching reaction out of the cultural elite—people like Michelle Obama or the late David Foster Wallace. I bring up DFW because in a famous 1993 essay about the Illinois State Fair published in Harper’s, he describes the food offerings with open disgust: the “green reek of fried tomatoes” and “pubic-hair-shaped” curly fries consumed by the “morbidly obese.” C’mon, lighten up, Dave! Have a fucking milkshake and a corn dog!
At least, that’s what ran through my mind as I strolled past the dozens of luridly decorated food booths lining the crowded thoroughfares of the Illinois State Fair last Saturday afternoon. It’s probably no coincidence that the bulk of the vendors are within spitting distance of the bright lights of the carnival midway. Outrageous fair fare is the culinary equivalent of rides like the Ring of Fire or the Gravitron—nutrition-free pleasures that alternately provide cheap thrills and (if you lack a steely constitution) a deep and abiding stomachache. And just as amusement ride designers keep finding new ways to spin, jostle, and twirl fairgoers into screams of delight mixed with terror, the fair’s chefs continue to take taste buds (and blood pressures) for a wild ride. Frog legs on a stick! Turtle cheesecake funnel cakes! One booth even serves dried scorpions, mealworms, or crickets as a pizza topping.
At the dozens of food booths at the Illinois State Fair, all consumables seem to follow a few simple guidelines:
Keep it basic.
Each item must contain at least one of five basic food groups: meat, potatoes, dairy, sugar, or dough. Hope you like curly fries, vegans!
Put it on a stick.
Sticks combine a warm feeling of nostalgia (childhood is at least partially defined by stick-based foods) with the convenience of eating as you walk. Here’s a sampling of things I saw served in stick form: corn dogs, chicken fingers, frog legs, alligator, cajun shrimp, deep-fried candy bars, cotton candy—and last but not least: pizza, which I was compelled to sample because it sounded so damn stupid. Part of the appeal of ‘za is that it’s already quite convenient to eat: the cheese, sauce, and toppings come on their own bready edible plate—why would you complicate things by attaching a stick? Turns out it’s as impractical as it sounds—but, oh, what an adventure! The cheese pizza on a stick was all dough on the outside, which meant I had to bite through the surface to get to the inner layers of gooey mozzarella and warm sauce, while avoiding sinking my teeth into the inch-thick plank holding it all together and trying to keep its innards from spilling. By the last bite, several globs of cheese and sauce had splattered on the sidewalk.
Side note: A lowly subgenre of fair fare is bucket food. Like stick-based edibles, the bucket’s portability and novelty factor is high, but there’s something about reaching into a pail crammed with donuts or a Bucket O’Spuds that makes you feel a little too much like one of the fair’s farm animals sucking down sustenance from a feed bag.
Dipping edibles in superhot cooking oil is the closest thing we have to culinary witchcraft. The method creates food with the irresistible combination of a crispy exterior and a moist interior. That’s likely why we’ve seen a sort of mission creep when it comes to the expansion of fried foods over the last couple decades. The evidence is at the state fair, where in addition to the classics like chicken, french fries, and doughnuts there’s a cavalcade of other items coated in a layer of fried batter: pickles, brownies, funnel cakes, candy bars, Oreo cookies, and yes, Twinkies.
A banner flying over a small booth read fried what!, and I knew I’d reached the end of my sojourn. I placed my order and three minutes later the smiling woman standing behind the counter delivered the sizzling cake in a red-plaid paper dish. The fried Twinkie is special because it represents the transformation of something mundane (eating a store-bought version out of the box is always underwhelming) into a wonder-food. It’s also the rare foodstuff that adheres to all three of the aforementioned fair-food rules—it’s sugary, it’s fried, and it arrives on a stick.
The first bite alone was worth the four-hour trip to the state capital. While eating the Hostess snack cake kissed by hot oil and topped with powdered sugar, the smells of other greasy fair foods filled my nostrils. And as I walked towards the sights and sounds of the carnival, well, the experience bordered on transcendent.
It convinced me the fair is where the deep-fried Twinkie should live forever. Just as it’s discombobulating to eat a special-event treat like a sundae in a plastic baseball helmet alone on the couch while watching the Cubs on TV, snacking on a fried Twinkie purchased from the frozen aisle of Walmart—one unwrapped from a plastic bag, thawed, and nuked in a microwave—is the real infinite jest.
The Illinois State Fair continues through Sunday 8/21.