Fairs know how to stick it to us when it comes to food

Besides being one of the cultural and political highlights of our Bainbridge Island year, last week’s Grand Old Fourth of July celebration was also the unofficial kickoff of the 2007 Food on a Stick season.

The chicken satay skewers and the hand-dipped ice cream bars offered at various booths on the 4th were only the tip of the Stick Food iceberg, mere precursors of the Stick Food bounty that lies ahead of us this summer. I suspect that most of us have a more than passing acquaintance with that most hallowed and ancient of the traditional Stick Foods, our delicious, deep-fried friend, the humble corn dog. But the corn dog, as delicious and festive as it may be, is rapidly becoming little more than a footnote in the history books of the ever-expanding Stick Food universe.

As all serious stick food aficionados know, the best stick foods are inextricably linked with state and county Fairs. You might say that county fairs are to stick foods as the 4th of July parade is to politicians, as cheap vodka is to hangovers, as the Mariners are to disappointment; you rarely get the one without having to endure the other. Today, astounding developments in human stick creativity and rapid scientific advancement in the deep fryer industry, virtually any food you can imagine, and many that you can’t, can now be captured and served on a stick.

By way of example, the Los Angeles County Fair serves deep-fried olives, strawberries and avocados on a stick. At the San Diego County Fair, you can get deep-fried squid and alligator on a stick. In Florida, deep-fried pickles presented on a stick are called “Frickles.” The Texas State Fair offers Coke on a stick – Coca-Cola in a batter drizzled with cola syrup, cinnamon sugar, whipped cream and a cherry – as well as a deep-fried peanut butter, banana and jelly sandwich on a stick, a concoction sure to make Elvis turn over in his grave, if he was actually in his grave, and I’m not saying that he’s not, I’m just keeping all my options open, Elvis-wise.

But the Mt. Everest of Stick Foods, the Gold Standard of deep-fried American Cuisine, has to be the Minnesota State Fair, which this year will offer a staggering 54 food items served on a stick. Among the more unusual and exotic Stick Food items available in the Land of a Thousand Deep Fryers this summer will be deep-fried Oreo cookies and Twinkies, deep-fried cheese curds on a stick, wild rice corn dogs, alligator sausage on a stick, a pork chop on a stick, pizza on a stick, and grapes, pineapple and melon on a stick.

You might think that some foods defy being served and eaten on a stick. For example, you might think that spaghetti and meatballs would not make for a stick-friendly meal. You’d be wrong. What about Sloppy Joes? Wrong again. Both are available at the Minnesota State Fair to a hungry and grateful nation of hardy and indiscriminate fair-goers and stick-food lovers, terms that might be interchangeable.

I’m not sure anyone really understands this uniquely American obsession with Stick Food. Perhaps it’s a reaction against the refinement and sophistication of nouvelle cuisine, a return to the simple pleasure of peasant food, which we eat without such elitist affectations and ornamentations as a knife or a fork or even a plate, our proletarian laughter and our hearty songs of the working man punctuated by hearty sprays of fried batter and unidentifiable animal parts. Maybe it’s a primordial pull back to our hunter/gatherer roots where our ancestors really did eat most of their food impaled on a stick of some sort. Or maybe its just plain fun to eat weird things on a stick with one hand while we use our other hand to toss darts at balloons, baseballs at milk bottles and ping-pong balls at goldfish bowls in the hopes of beating the odds and taking home a prize we didn’t really want to go along with the inevitable upset stomach that we so richly deserve.

Whatever the origins of the urge, I feel it strongly right now, so if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to belly up to a stick somewhere. Bon appetite.

Tom Tyner of Bainbridge Island writes a weekly humor column for this newspaper. This is from his “Classic Files” of columns written years ago.