Thursday, March 6, 2014

Florida State Fair/Florida Strawberry Festival

Late winter and early spring is festival season in west-central Florida, and two of the state's largest ones (the State Fair and the Strawberry Festival) happen to occur within days of each other less than an hour's drive from the Canteen. The missus and I are suckers for fests - once you dig past the ubiquitous carnival hyper-fare (deep fried Oreos, anyone?), they can be a good source of lowbrow-yet-inventive street food creations that will often highlight the region's culinary specialties. It was with this goal in mind that we rounded up the kids one recent Sunday afternoon and made our way over to the Florida State Fairgrounds, just off of I-4 about 10 minutes east of downtown Tampa.

The item at the fair that had garnered the most attention in the local foodie press thus far was the ramen burger being cooked up by a single Carousel Foods stand in the park, where two grilled discs of ramen noodles (presumably to give them some sort of structure beyond their usual limp form) stood in for the hamburger bun. The ramen burger was on the top of my hit list, but wasn't immediately visible when we encountered our first stretch of midway, so we settled for some corn dogs instead.

Mrs. Hackknife initially scoffed at me ("With all the stuff here, you're going to fill up on corn dogs?"); however, it turns out that these corn dogs (buttermilk-dipped according to the sign and described as such by the proprietors) were among the best I can recall having, with a light, fluffy breading encasing the juicy sausage (see photo below).

Stomach sufficiently primed, we took the progeny on a few rides before stopping for a treat break at another well-publicized stand, this one selling a number of different funnel cakes. After nearly settling on the maple-bacon version, I made a snap decision to get the bacon chocolate instead:

As decadent as this looks in the photo, it was a little underwhelming. Still, I'm convinced in the proper hands and with higher-quality ingredients (for example, I saw them use an off-brand chocolate syrup for topping - just think of what this could be with Nueske's bacon and Valhrona dark chocolate!), someone would have a best-seller.

More rides followed along with some wandering through the livestock exhibits (you don't see THOSE at Disney World - who knew rabbits could get that enormous?). We finally stumbled upon the ramen burger stand tucked back in the far reaches of the fairgrounds; unfortunately, the line was excessively long, so we pressed onward, making a brief stop at the Amish Baking Company booth to get some lemonades and freshly-made glazed donuts for the kids. Although I'd pretty much reached my daily limit on fried goods, I snuck one bite for research purposes and found the donut to be amazingly good, very similar to those we'd fawned over at Britt's Donuts in Carolina Beach last summer. The ramen burger was still within my reach, but the progeny had started getting ornery by this time and I feared that a 20-minute wait for daddy to get his wacky sandwich would push my wife over the edge; thus, I had to bid it adieu and hope that Carousel Foods would have the same offerings at the upcoming Strawberry Festival, which we planned to attend the following week.

Mrs. Hackknife and I arrived at the Strawberry Fest (without dependents this time) eager to see the evening's musical headliner Styx (fellow natives of Chicago suburbia) and to have a little more freedom in choosing food items. Being an ardent supporter of the dairy industry, the missus immediately stopped for a portion of deep fried butter (an actual half-stick of butter that is battered and fried) on a stick. Now, you readers are aware that there are many things I will consume that the average person tends to shun, but I definitely have my limits, and this abomination against God is one of them; in fact, I had such a physical aversion to it that I couldn't even watch her nibble (which, to her credit, she did only a few times before tossing the remainder to the rats and pigeons). I needed a good while of walking the festival site looking for less-offensive creations before I could conceive of having dinner.

The number of typical fair junk food stands here was astounding; sadly, not much really stood out. Eventually, I stumbled across the Hungry Gator Meat Market trailer from nearby Plant City and tried one of their housemade alligator sausages:

Ample-sized, lightly sauced, and surprisingly mild with just a hint of spice (paprika?), this gator meat was definitely better than the trashy gator nuggets I had at a roadhouse somewhere near Orlando about 15 years ago (the only other encounter with edible gator I can recall). With no ramen burger in sight (guess I'll have to wait for next year...sigh), Mrs. H. and I decided to then seek out examples of the produce-of-honor - sure, you can get strawberry pie, and strawberry pizza, and (of course) deep fried strawberries here, but we opted for old-school strawberry shortcake, which many organizations were selling at the fest to raise funds.

This particular sampling of strawberry shortcake came courtesy of St. Clement Catholic Church in Plant City, which has an entire stall, covered pavilion, and a phalanx of volunteers supporting its high-volume (and, from the looks of things, highly coveted) shortcake operation. Once you enter, you're given a choice of traditional round cake cup or biscuit for your substrate, then get a ladle of strawberries in juice, a dollop-to-order of whipped cream, and a single berry on top to complete the creation. Unfortunately, I didn't find this dessert to live up to the fanfare - it seemed like the type of thing anyone could throw together for a few bucks at the local Ponderosa (I should note that the wife enjoyed hers just fine and told me to "lighten up").

Much better in my opinion was the strawberry shortcake milkshake I noticed from one of the stands nearby. The proprietors appeared to pump a decent amount of vanilla milkshake and strawberries into the cup bottom, followed by a spin with the Hamilton Beach mixer, then topping the resulting slurry with an entire yellow cake cup and a royal crown of whipped cream. I found the key to maximum enjoyment was breaking up the cake into the mix so that its little chunks could be slurped up the straw along with the milkshake. If my jaw ever needs to be wired shut, I henceforth decree that this shall be my sole source of nourishment during my convalescence.

After these two festivals, I believe we're ready to break for a while, at least until the nearby Filipino Fest comes back around the first of April.

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