One of the best things about my job (and I use that term loosely) is my yearly eat-athon through the Alaska State Fair. Last year, of course, we all had to miss this summer milestone. These are unprecedented times, when we are made to wait two years in between pork chops on a stick and deep-fried Oreos. So, on opening day, I set out to the fairgrounds with twice the anticipation and twice the appetite.
Like many fairgoers, I have my tried-and-true favorites. Pork rinds, elephant ears, fried cheese curds, killer shrimp and crab cakes usually end up on my plate. So, this year I tried a new approach. I let fellow-fairgoers choose my fair fare. My husband and I eavesdropped, stopped people in their tracks, and followed our noses to try dishes that were favorites for others but new to us.
I made one exception, which was a bow to family tradition. Before we did anything else, we hit up the Pristine Products (Red Trail) oyster stand for a dozen barely dressed oysters on the half-shell ($25). This year my plan was to eat but not tell, as I am already exhaustively on the record for loving these beautiful gems from Prince William Sound. So, apologies to those of you who have heard me wax poetic on this topic before. But this year the oysters deserve a special mention because, you guys, they are huge. And in this case, bigger is absolutely better because it means more sweet, silky, briny deliciousness. “They’ve had an extra year to grow,” our shucker cheerfully explained. I’ll take her at her word. And you should take me at mine.
If a raw oyster with a drizzle of lemon is one of the simplest foods at the fair, the donut burger ($14, Purple Trail) is one of the most excessive. And it was certainly the buzziest. How best to describe it? A burger with cheese, bacon and a fried egg, sandwiched between two halves of a fresh-glazed donut. It’s like what might end up on your plate if a natural disaster hit while you were in line at a breakfast buffet. A delicious, delicious disaster. Is it ridiculous? Yes. Would I order it again? Also, yes.
Just across the way is the Reuben House (Purple Trail), which we planned to pass over since we’ve eaten our share of their savory sandwiches. But we were stopped in our tracks, seduced by free samples of beer-battered mushrooms being hawked by their crew. A bite led to a full order ($9) of these extra crispy, deep brown nuggets of earthy goodness served with a bright but decadent spicy aioli dipping sauce. I’ve never considered myself to be a mushroom person, but this is the second time in recent memory that I have been completely won over by a mushroom dish, so I’m reexamining my relationship to all things fungi. And what more can you say about a dish than that it’s led you to a culinary reckoning?
After all the salty, deep-fried goodness, we were ready for something sweet. A palate cleanser, if you will. So, when a full-sized pineapple walked by, our heads were turned. Truthfully, I think we were both thinking tropical cocktail, but when we caught up with the owner, we were pointed in the direction of Aloha Whip (Green Trail), a newish stand serving up Dole Whip in a variety of ways. Somehow, I have managed to live over half a century without ever having heard of this amusement park staple — a major gap in my culinary knowledge.
By the time we were at the front of the line, the whole whip-filled pineapple seemed forbiddingly huge. So, we reined in our ambitions and split a serving of pineapple Dole whip in a boring old cup ($6). I’m a convert. This was creamy, sweet, with a gentle lingering tartness to make it refreshing on a warm summer day. It’s also dairy-free, which makes it a profound culinary mystery. If you understand how this works, please do not enlighten me.
Full but not defeated, we took a break from eating to shop and stroll and try to revitalize our appetites. This led us to the Alaska Potbelly Pig Rescue (Yellow Trail) where we took turns cuddling an adorable, tiny pig, which I hereby declare to be the best non-food bargain at the fair. A five-minute cuddle for $10 benefits their nonprofit and is much cheaper and cuter than your therapist.
We were looking for our next inspiration when a giant bread bowl, brimming with something steamy, turned our heads, so we headed to the midway in search of our own. Phyllis’s Café (Green Trail) runs this yearly stalwart stand ladling up soups, chowders and chili into pillowy, scooped-out sourdough loaves. After our donut (and let’s be honest, beer) fueled morning, the prospect of bread and chili sounded hearty and wholesome, and it was just what the doctor ordered. Thick and meaty, mildly seasoned, and topped with heaps of shredded cheese and chopped onions, this. At $13, this stick-to-your ribs, self-contained, and reasonably complete meal, wins my (non-pig-cuddling-related) bargain-of-the-day award.
Because we can’t leave well enough alone, we booked it over to Bushes Bunches (Purple Trail) for a heap of fried peanut potatoes ($9) to eat on the side. These perfectly cooked fries are crispy on the outside and tender and fluffy within. They’re delicious on their own with just a dusting of salt but they were also just the thing for dipping in our chili and in the bacon mayonnaise sauce that comes with them. That’s BACON MAYONNAISE SAUCE (for the people in the back).
You may not believe that we had room for dessert but, trust me, we’ve been training for this event all year. We strolled and scanned, determined that our last dish of the day be a worthy one. There were many temptations, some new, some tried-and-true. Hand-dipped ice cream bars, Denali cream puffs, fudge, crepes, and funnel cakes. But it was the sight of a peach-covered waffle that sent us back to the midway. The Boardwalk (Green Trail) is peach-central at the fair and this taste of summer seemed like the perfect way to end the day.
At the counter, we had a change of heart when we saw the order of the woman in front of us. We scrapped the waffle and went for the deep-fried peach. This is served in hot, crispy wedges on a bed of vanilla ice cream and topped with whipped cream. This dish is like childhood in a bowl: sweet, decadent, and wholesome. My husband won hero status for remembering to buy a frozen peach pie to take home.
The Alaska State Fair experience should be a combination of comforting nostalgia, reckless daring, oysters, prize-winning quilts and pig cuddling, not necessarily in that order. If you make it to the fair this year, make sure you get second helpings of each.
Alaska State Fair
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. through Monday, Sept. 6 (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays)
Tickets are $7-$15 (for details on bundles see alaskastatefair.org)
Palmer Fairgrounds (2075 Glenn Highway)