PALMER -- Sorry, locavores. Food from nearby fields is scarce at the Alaska State Fair.
Just a few of the nearly 70 food vendors at the fair this year build their menus around locally grown, fresh produce despite the Matanuska Valley’s New Deal farm colony roots and a two-year Alaska Grown campaign to get more veggies from nearby fields and other local products into food booths.
Vendors tell state agriculture boosters that locally grown produce doesn’t always come in the form they need -- shredded iceberg lettuce for tacos, say -- or supply enough volume to feed an estimated 300,000 people eating their way through the two-week fair.
But let’s be honest here.
One of the reasons farm-fresh goodness doesn’t dominate at the fair boils down to the deep-fried competition. The meat popsicles. Cream puffs and funnel cakes. Chocolate-dipped bacon.
“I think people go to the fair for a certain kind of fair food that doesn’t always lend itself to our local fresh produce,” said Amy Pettit, marketing Alaska Grown manager with the Alaska Division of Agriculture in Palmer.
Search for spinach
The Talkeetna Spinach Bread booth debuted at the fair this year and promptly won a second-place ribbon in the hotly contested food vendor competition.
Owners Karey Larson and husband Ross Benischek dish up Susitna Valley rhubarb in a juicy blueberry-rhubarb crisp topped with fresh whipped cream. The bread in their signature dish is derived from beer-brewing grains from Denali Brewing Co.
But the Talkeetna-based vendors can’t get enough local spinach to whip up their roasted garlicky, cheese-laden namesake. A nearby farmer tries to grow lots of the green but it bolts, going bitter and sending up flowers too soon. And there just isn’t enough to top the hundreds of pieces of spinach bread flying out of their vintage Airstream trailer on busy fair days.
“There’s a guy that lives in Trapper Creek that really, really wants to sell me spinach but he has such a hard time doing it,” Larson said, adding that the farmer has plenty of kale and chard if she can work it into a recipe: “If we had a source of local organic spinach, we would certainly use it.”
Looking for local
State agriculture division staff audited every food booth in 2012, asking vendors if they sourced their food locally, Pettit said.
They came away “overwhelmingly disappointed,” she said.
Since then, the state program has tried to ramp up the fair’s local offerings. Vendors who use Alaska produce get that distinctive “Alaska Grown” sign at their booths. An approved vendor list circulates on Alaska Grown Day -- Thursday this year -- when fairgoers wearing T-shirts with the state logo get a $2 discount.
But honestly, Pettit said, the efforts haven’t led to big changes yet even though vendors could qualify for a state program that allows restaurants to get a 20 percent reimbursement on any purchase of Alaska-grown specialty crops.
The fair has been a good partner in the state’s efforts, adding a clause to the food vendor contract encouraging the use of Alaska-grown products, she said.
Fairgoers say they appreciate the fair’s farm legacy -- even if they don’t always eat that way.
Eagle River resident Cris Vrabel sat on a bench enjoying a pork chop on a stick this week.
The grilled meat was tasty but Vrabel said she still planned to hit the Bushes Bunches farm stand later, plus take a gander at the oversized rutabagas and jumbo kale in the Farm Exhibit.
“You come here to view all the super-duper veggies,” she said. “Everything seems sweeter here.”
According to an unofficial count by fair officials, coupled with a walk around the fair, at least a dozen vendors are serving Alaska-grown products but largely in the form of fish, meat and seafood: Indian Valley Meats, Salmon Express, Pristine Products oyster bar, the Patty Wagon, Fish On! Camp Grill and Seafood Alaska. Along with the rhubarb at Spinach Bread, Mr. Gyro’s potato wedges are Alaska-grown and so are the zucchini at Friar Tucks.
Only a few vendors really emphasize local produce, including Bushes Bunches and Bistro Red Beet.
The mantra at Red Beet is “Eat Smart, Eat Local, Eat Clean,” said owner Sally Koppenberg, who runs a restaurant near Wasilla along the Palmer-Wasilla Highway but has also served up fair food since 2009.
At the fair booth, the veggies in the veggie melts are local and the pickled products chopped into loaves are fermented in-house. Fresh raw beet raspberry juice? Say no more.
“We get our potatoes from four or five sources, our onions from a couple sources, our celery from another one,” Koppenberg said. “We try to support little growers as well as the bigger guys.”
The booth was quiet on Tuesday as hordes descended on the deep-fried cheese curds and pork chops on sticks at nearby Great Alaskan Food Adventure.
But John Wood from Eagle River headed straight for Red Beet. His wife tries to eat gluten-free and he tries to eat healthy, Wood said. She got a bowl of stew served with quinoa bread, and he got a sandwich.
“It’s locally grown, and it’s right inside the door,” he said.
Contact Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org.