Saturday, Sep 15 2012 12:00 PM

Fair food: Oddball choices -- chocolate-covered bacon! -- vs. traditional

BY STEFANI DIAS Californian assistant lifestyles editor sdias@bakersfield.com

The No. 1 reason people visit the Kern County Fair is simple: food. So says Jeannie Burton, the fair's concessions supervisor, who may be a bit biased, overseeing the 70-plus vendors who will offer more than 900 dishes starting Wednesday.

"The focus is to sell something yummy," she wrote in an email. "Fairgoers know what they want when they get here. 'Fun stuff' because of the experience: corn on the cob, apple dumplings, take-home cinnamon rolls, kettle korn, garlic fries.

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What's hot this year

Fair concessions supervisor Jeannie Burton shared what she thinks will be first on the fairway this year:

shish kabobs (chicken, beef, shrimp, vegetarian)

deep-fried grilled cheese sandwich

chocolate-covered bacon ("everyone will try it")

bratwurst

new Mexican cuisine in the Villa Festiva

"Corn dogs are the biggest sellers, along with pizza and funnel cakes -- this year there are red velvet funnel cakes with all the fixings. Barbecue, turkey legs, bacon-wrapped hot dogs covered with grilled everything, baked potatoes topped with pesto, chili."

Many of those items can be made at home any time of the year, but Burton said having all those calories in one place is part of what makes the fair experience great.

And although people enjoy sampling tried-and-true tastes, novelty plays a part in concessions.

"Every year something new pops up. We always are open to new ideas and most are presented by our existing concessionaires and staff. They travel or attend other fairs and bring back great ideas for something new and exciting."

The 'daredevil' of concessions

One such concessionaire is Sharon Parks, whom Burton describes as a "daredevil for trying new items each year." Last year, on the suggestion of her son, Lance, she served deep-fried Kool-Aid balls at Mac's Patio and Mary's Ice Cream, the concession her parents started in 1952.

This year, the tropical punch-flavored fried dough will be back along with a competing confection: chocolate-covered bacon.

"My kids have done a good job helping me," Parks said of her son and daughter Kathy, both of whom follow fair food trends. "This year, my daughter said, 'You need to try the chocolate-covered bacon; it's all the rage.'"

As with the Kool-Aid balls, Parks started with a recipe she found -- and then modified.

"I tinker with the recipe until I'm happy with it. When you first bite into it, you get the chocolate taste. After, the bacon flavor comes through."

Parks will serve the thicker-cut, oven-baked bacon on skewers, dipped in either white or traditional chocolate, plus sprinkles. Fairgoers will get two skewers per order for $5.

Anticipating the high interest in the dish, Parks said she's planning ahead to prevent long waits, which became an issue for the Kool-Aid balls.

With "Kool-Aid balls you need to do them as they're ordered, so they're nice and hot. I had two girls pretty much working on that full time to keep that made (last year). I got them a mixer so they don't have to hand-mix it in the bowl.

"Bacon will be made after hours. I will try to have it made up for the people, so it won't be too difficult. I'm going to make a bunch up before the fair starts."

As for what's on the slate for next year, Parks said she may take on the ubiquitous fair fare: corn -- but with her trademark twist.

"The corn is baked in the oven with the husk on. When you take it out of the oven, it gives it a little different flavor. There's no cleanup to get the silk off. You know how difficult it is to clean corn."

Whether corn or candied dishes, Parks said she'll keep working on new treats to tempt patrons.

"It's fun to have something that is completely different. I want to have each year something different for the public to try, the unique things."

Brats and buns

Also trying something different is another longtime Kern County Fair vendor. JP's Old West Cinnamon Rolls & Original Bratwurst has participated in the fair circuit since the early '70s, bringing its trademark sweet buns to a variety of events.

This year, the concession, run by Joseph Parkhurst, expands its offerings with traditional German fare, including bratwurst and potato salad.

The German dishes are new to the fair but not the fairgrounds, Parkhurst said.

"This booth has been at the annual home and garden show at the Kern County fairgrounds both autumn and spring for the last few years, so there are already a number of fans of this delicious German sausage."

And this is no imitation brat, Parkhurst said, since it comes from an old German recipe.

"We weren't looking to buy another business, but we knew the people who owned it. The man came from a family of German butchers. He brought that recipe with him. It's very specific, a unique recipe."

So unique that he struggled to share it with Parkhurst.

"It was really difficult for us to get him to give us the recipe, even after we bought the business. Finally he taught the sausage guy how to make it. He didn't even tell his son or his grandkids. I think he resents having to give to us."

One man's misery is our fair's gain, with a lean sausage steamed, then grilled and served on a bun with sauerkraut on the side. The sandwich will sell for $6. (The booth also offers a Reuben for $9).

Customers can accompany the brat with the German potato salad, served warm, and made with mustard, vinegar, bacon and parsley -- but no hard-boiled eggs. The salad sells for $2, and a combo with bratwurst is $9.

Of course, the concession's claim to fame are its cinnamon rolls, which doesn't surprise Parkhurst, who has worked fairs across the country.

"Every fair is traditionalist. They each have their own traditions. At the Minnesota State Fair, chocolate chip cookies is the biggest booth at the fair. It would die here. In Wisconsin, it's fried cheese curds, although we have those here."

What makes the cinnamon rolls stand is the mix, which was perfected by Parkhurst's mother, Betty.

"Our cinnamon roll is made from a bread dough. People eat a lot of bread. It's not really a pastry. Any pastry is layered with layers of butter. It leaves a lump in your stomach. But you can eat them (rolls) and not feel like you have so much grease in your stomach."

And taking rolls home will get a little easier this year. In addition to the traditional wrapped-up rolls, the booth will offer frozen ones to bake at home. Parkhurst said the rolls have a freezer life of up to 10 days if chilled promptly, which will make you the most popular person at the breakfast table even after the fair ends.

Fresh rolls sell for $4 each, with cream cheese frosting for 75 cents, nuts for 50 cents or $1 for the works. Frozen rolls will be available in ready-to-bake pans of three for $12 or six for $20 ("We do a special: buy five, get the sixth for free.")

Frozen or fresh, Parkhurst aims to provide customers with high-caliber products from his booths.

"We are very into the quality of the product. We're there to give them exactly what they want. Hopefully it's the best cinnamon roll or the sausage they've had in their life."

Among folks getting into line this week will be Burton, who is eager to sample what she's heard about for weeks.

"You bet (I'll try the bratwurst and the bacon), and other staff are ready for the taste test. They are the best critics."

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