Saturday, October 10, 2015

Talking Arkansas State Fair food with Kat Robinson

Posted By on Sat, Oct 10, 2015 at 8:49 AM

Caramel apples - KAT ROBINSON
  • Kat Robinson
  • Caramel apples

The Arkansas State Fair is here again, and I can't wait to get back in town so I can go. I love looking at the different exhibits every year, from the livestock to the local interest booths that line the Hall of Industry. And, of course, there's all that fair food. Last year, we ate our way up and down the midway, and I expect we'll do much the same this year.

No writer in Arkansas knows more about the Arkansas State Fair than Kat Robinson, who since 2008 has been covering the eats and events both over on her blog Tie Dye Travels and here at Eat Arkansas. She's just released her newest State Fair Eats Guide, and the preview she did of this years events is also a must-read.

Because Kat has been such a valuable voice about the fair (and Arkansas food in general), I sat down with her to ask her a few questions about how she came to love the fair so much—and how our fair compares to others she's attended. This year's fair runs October 9-18, plenty of time to go down to the fairgrounds and get your fair on.

Deep-fried, bacon-wrapped Oreos. - KAT ROBINSON
  • Kat Robinson
  • Deep-fried, bacon-wrapped Oreos.

Eat Arkansas: What is the first State Fair you can remember attending?
Kat Robinson: My mom and I would go out to the Arkansas State Fair when I was very young, maybe six or seven. The first time I had Chinese food, egg rolls at the State Fair. My first gyro may have been there. As a kid, the whole thing would seem exotic. We had a set path. We'd go look at the livestock, then I might ride a few rides, and then we'd eat something. We'd go to the Hall of Industry and I'd get all sorts of stuff to take home.

Back then, the fair seemed to be a little earlier in the year. We'd go to celebrate my birthday. It's always been attached to good memories in my mind.

In my television days, we'd do a live shot the first Friday morning of the fair, which is how I got to know the Randy's Superdog folks. They'd always send back a ridiculously long corn dog to B.J. Sams. He loves corn dogs.

EA: What's the first one you attended that you wrote about?

KR: First time I covered the Arkansas State Fair for Tie Dye Travels was back in 2008. There was a media day, and there was this buzz about a new fair food dish. Now, I'd heard a lot about the crazy fair foods at the Texas and Minnesota State Fairs, and I wondered if there was such a craziness to our own fair's fare. That was the year of the Pig Licker. Because the media preview was in September, all the fair folks had to go on was description, so they made their own out of round bacon slices, the sort you get on sandwiches some time, and they dunked them in chocolate syrup. Of course, when the fair started, we found that the chocolate was firmer, melted chocolate on strip bacon....

I was hugely pregnant that first year, but I did it because it was fun and interesting to me. And I found that people enjoyed the story I wrote about what I found.

click to enlarge Kat Robinson getting pictures at the Fair - GRAV WELDON
  • Grav Weldon
  • Kat Robinson getting pictures at the Fair

EA: You've done the Texas State Fair, too, which is the gold standard of fairs. How does that compare to Arkansas?

KR: The State Fair of Texas... there's a lot more emphasis on making something crazy because of the Big Tex Choice awards. National media comes in to cover it. Now, the vendors there are more likely to be from the area. There aren't a whole lot of concessionaires working out of trailers... they have stands that are set up. The fair's longer, too. The vendors are essentially fair contractors — they all have to wear the same clothing.

The one way they can stand out from each other is with a Big Tex Award. They put up plaques celebrating the items they've had which they've won with. And the only way to get on that finalist list each year is to outdo the last year.

So you get a lot of items at the State Fair of Texas. The first time we went, Grav [Weldon, photographer] and I were there eight hours and tried 60 items between the two of us. We were working on a story for Serious Eats at the time. Mind you, this is 2010 and most of the news stories about crazy food had just been about that Big Tex Choice list — which is decided on a week before the fair begins. We're coming in a couple days after the fair has begun, and we're thorough. Many of the vendors allowed us samples but we still spent quite a lot of money to try everything we could. Still can't believe we spent money on fried beer — it was awful. And then we get in the car and start heading back home, trying to make deadline. Grav's in the passenger seat turning photos while I'm driving. We got pulled over somewhere halfway between Dallas and Texarkana. The cop thought we were watching videos while driving. Grav showed him the pictures and we ended up spending a good 20 minutes on the side of the road talking about the weird fair foods there.

We did 80 items in eight hours the next year. I was so sick afterwards. This past year, we did 71 items in six hours and it was 95 degrees that day.

The State Fair of Texas is huge. It's three weeks of crazy. People get season passes because it's so big. And since that first time we started cataloguing food, others have jumped in. Now the fair folks there celebrate those bloggers and publicize them on their website. It's almost too much.

The Arkansas State Fair is shorter, more compact, and with about a third of what's going on at the State Fair of Texas. And that's okay. The tickets are much cheaper, and the Lunch at the Fair program offers people a chance to come on-site for free each day between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. It's far more accessible. The food may not be as weird, but it's pretty good, and we do come up with some stuff here.

click to enlarge Classic Funnel Cake - KAT ROBINSON
  • Kat Robinson
  • Classic Funnel Cake

EA: How many fairs in a row have you covered? What's the best and worst thing you've eaten at the fair?

2015 is the eighth Arkansas State Fair in a row for me. Each year, there's something different. Now, a month before the fair, concessionaires send in their menu items for the press release that goes out to the media, and that's where the "new foods at the fair" column on the food list is created. However, these concessionaires may think they have something new for folks at the Arkansas State Fair, but someone else might have done it or it just didn't get attention the year before. I noticed the Bird Dog's on this year's list, but I featured it last year (and it was even at last year's media preview day). The fair folks are doing the best they can.

Problem is, few people in the media have time to dedicate to covering the minutiae of what's offered. I set aside that time. I research the list when it comes out, see where those items have come from, attend the media preview... and then on the first day of the fair, Grav and I are all over the place, walking the grounds from one end to another, photographing menus and food items and asking questions. I put up the list, and for a week and a half people are logging in. Some just want to see what's weird out there, but I get a lot of remarks from people who are searching out the particular items when they go. They want to find that one particular food they're looking for, and not be tempted by everything else they're going to see. I get that.

2011 was the busiest fair year for us. Grav got a chance to visit the Alaska State Fair, which is another experience entirely. He came back in, and in one month we did the Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair in Fort Smith, the State Fair of Texas, the Arkansas State Fair and the Louisiana State Fair down in Shreveport, which is far less about fried things and far more about what you can stuff into a sausage casing. That's where we met the lamb fries folks (who came up to the Arkansas State Fair last year ) for the first time.

The worst thing I've eaten at any fair would be the fried bubblegum from the State Fair of Texas in 2011. It was truly, truly disgusting, but people would go and dare others to try it. For a while there, if you googled "the girl who tried fried bubblegum," my image would come up. Grav did an excellent job of capturing that moment of horror.

Our state fair, there are far fewer misses, at least what I've encountered. I learned that a deep fried avocado is only good when it's hot, and it becomes a babyfood-ish mush otherwise. I'm not much for sour ropes, either. My worst experience was probably with last year's Saucy Wings, and that was on my end — they were so hot I could not find them palatable, and I got that sauce in my nose and... it was just a bad time. Yay for pineapple whips, that's all I'm saying.

click to enlarge Arkansas-shaped peanut patty. - GRAV WELDON
  • Grav Weldon
  • Arkansas-shaped peanut patty.

EA: Is there one certain fair food you look forward to all year? What's been the fair food you were most surprised you liked?

KR: When I was a little girl, the funnel cake was the best thing. It was the last thing we got before we left the fair, and even as an adult that tradition continued. Whatever group I was in, whether it was with my mom or my best friend or my spouse or my child, we'd get a hot funnel cake and stand around in a huddle and pull it apart with our fingers right there and sugar would go everywhere.

Today, it's the fry bread taco. I really. really wish someone in Arkansas was doing fry bread. I fell in love with it while I was in Phoenix several years ago, but while mixes are sold here for them, you can't get it in any of our restaurants. There's just something about that fluffy dough that does it for me. And that's all I have to eat that trip. I usually save it for mid-way through the fair, after I've tried all the crazy stuff.

I didn't think I'd like things like fried Oreos. But fried Hershey's kisses and peanut butter cups, when they're very hot, just have... that je ne sais quoi about them. It's like the flavor of licking the batter for brownies, but hot. I only ever have one, because more than that is just too much. That's why you share.

Because of the Big Tex Choice Awards and their counterparts at other state fairs, the average person may be convinced that everything is outlandish, deep fried and unhealthy. For a while there, our vendors were reactive and were deep frying everything. That's why it's important to show everything at these events. Fresh fruit, grilled meats and vegetables and other items of the sort may not be glamorous but they are available and tasty. You can eat well at the fair, just as easily as you can gorge yourself silly.

The fair food guides I write each year are meant to show all of it, the good and bad and "what were they thinking?" items. I hope it encourages vendors to offer bigger varieties, too. It thrills me to be able to brag on the giant grilled sweet potato, quail kebabs and barbecue rabbit, because they're much closer to the foods we'd eat in our rural homes and at our local county fairs, when they're offered. They're exotic for us city folk, sure. I'd rather have a goat-filled cabritas wrap than a deep-fried bacon-wrapped chocolate any day.

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