By JAY REED
What do you get when you cross sticky heat, red dust, and lots of fried food? I guess that’s not really a fair question — it could be anywhere in Mississippi, right? In this case, however, it is a “fair” answer — the Neshoba County Fair, to be exact. And if you couldn’t answer that question right away, then I guess you didn’t make it down Philadelphia way this summer. But don’t stop reading with the idea that those three ingredients are all that the NCF is about — they don’t call it Mississippi’s Giant House Party for nothing.
In my lifetime I’ve thrice found my way to the Fair. The first time, I was a college student invited down by friends with a cabin and was thus able to experience Fair life as an insider of sorts. At least when the gate closed that night, I was inside. I couldn’t tell you the first thing I ate that summer, but I’m reasonably sure it was family fare rather than vendor victuals.
By the time I was close enough to “in the neighborhood” to visit the Fair again, I was married with offspring and the guys (Doc, Son and me) went down to watch the harness races that Son had been reading about in the Black Stallion book series. At this stage of my life, I was farther along in my awareness of things culinary and made some memories with fried crawfish tails from Penn’s and an ear of deep-fried corn on the cob. That trip may have been my first experience with a deep-fried Oreo as well, if all those trans fats haven’t muddled my memory too much over these many years.
This summer Son and Daughter went along with me — Daughter’s inaugural visit to the fair. My first goal was to catch a little bluegrass music; you can imagine the excitement that ensued from the aforementioned offspring. Our arrival was carefully timed to be there for lunch, so we surveyed the food scene so that we could plot the day’s course accordingly. I don’t mind eating a lot of fried food, even on a hot day — but even I know better than to eat it all at once. There were several items of interest noted for later consumption, but we started out at the same place we’d visited a few years before, the Penn’s trailer. Gazing up into row after row of battered edibles, only vaguely identifiable by shape, Son chose to stick with tradition and go with the crawfish tails — Daughter found something in her limited culinary repertoire and ordered chicken. We all shared a giant lemonade and I mooched from both baskets. How’s that for moderation?
Once the kiddos had taken in as much bluegrass as they could stand, we grabbed a Lindsey’s Lemonade (a drink that would soon become our theme for the day) and made our way to one of several food vendors offering fried goodies. Son (a traditionalist, it turns out) put in his request for more Oreos; as they were being prepped I noticed a couple of Pop-Tart packs stacked strategically by the window. Having never enjoyed a deep fried Pop Tart before, I was obliged to try it, thus making the day a success. Check that off the bucket list. Strawberry frosted was the flavor: fine for battering and frying, but not so good with the caramel syrup the vendor drizzled over the finished product before I could stop him. Aside from the odd flavor mixing, two deep-fried Pop-Tarts with powdered sugar and caramel syrup are a lot for one person to tackle, especially since Son was happy with his own Oreos and Daughter — well, Daughter was holding out for a funnel cake to be named later.
Shortly after our arrival at the Fair, Daughter connected with CLB (Cheer-Leading Buddy) and by the third horse race was already plotting her escape. Given that the races seemed to hold even less interest than the bluegrass (What have I raised?), Son and I walked her over to CLB’s trackside cabin and went a-wandering. Back at the square we ran into one of my BNP’s (Boyhood Neighbor Pals) playing Frisbee golf, so we joined the game for a few rounds. That didn’t require a lot of energy in and of itself, but did I mention the stifling heat? We all agreed that some time under the fan on the porch of their cabin was the place to be.
After a good long respite on the porch, we were ready to tackle the next bit of fair fare — the donut burger. As the great philosopher Britney Spears once said, “Oops, I Did It Again.” Only this time, the burger was bigger. I asked the vendor what he recommended in the way of building this beast; he said a lot of people like cheese and grilled onions and peppers. I thought, “If I keep eating donut burgers I’m going to BE a lot of people," so we went with his recommendation. Let me just say this: two burger patties, two cheese slices, two donuts and a pile of grilled onions is a tall order — literally.
Daughter and CLB joined us shortly after that and they hit the midway. Full of donut burger, Son and I opted to watch. Daughter ultimately gave up on her original quest for funnel cake and chose a soft pretzel instead. I thought it was pretty cool that they had sprinkled some chopped herbs on it — how do you think that went over with Daughter? Not too good. Thankfully, they brushed off fairly easily.
We closed our day much like we had started it, at Penn’s, this time with a plate of fried cheese bites (the fried green beans seemed a bit too healthy). It was a good day: cabin time with BNP and CLB, bluegrass, horses and a memorable selection of deep-fried delectables. Can’t wait till next year.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .