Step right up for guilty pleasures at Florida State Fair

TAMPA

The two women browsed the ice cream flavors Monday at the Florida State Fair.

A sign with a cartoon pig advertised Southern comfort ice cream: sweet potato ice cream mixed with seven ingredients, including waffle pieces and candied bacon.

"That seems weird. Why not?" Barb McMullen, 59, of Trinity said to the booth attendant. "Today is junk food day."

McMullen and Fran Viscomi allow themselves one day of fair indulgence each year. Breakfast was the strawberry-topped eclair. Lunch was kettle corn. For dessert, Viscomi chose pumpkin spice ice cream; McMullen, the Southern comfort.

"It's not a heavy taste," McMullen said as the two enjoyed their selections. "You would think one taste would overpower the other, but it doesn't."

With each bite, she discovered new flavors. Here, a piece of waffle. There, a taste of marshmallow. And wait, was that bacon?

"Eww," Viscomi said.

"Taste it!" McMullen encouraged.

"No, I'm not going to," Viscomi said. "I'm not eating ice cream and bacon."

"Chicken."

• • •

Deep-fried Twinkies set off a battered craze when they hit the fair scene years ago. The once-novel dessert now blends into a lineup of fried everything: butter, Oreos, Reese's, even peanut butter and jelly.

"Everything can be deep fried if you put enough batter on it," said Jeremy Benton, 28, of New Port Richey, as he bit into the last of his doughnut burger.

Jeremy and Jessica Benton start counting down to the fair once the holidays end. This was the first trip for their 16-month-old son, Josiah.

He was still too young for his own deep-fried Oreo, so Jessica would give him little bits of what they ordered.

He clapped when Mom cooed the magic words: "Funnel cake."

"We already stopped and ate twice," she said. "We got here 30 minutes ago."

• • •

Fair food veterans suggest trying the new treats but not ignoring the classics like corn dogs and elephant ears.

Susan Coats, 53, and Kathy Morrow, 55, always save space for their favorites: fried cheesecake and the Amish doughnut. And the taco pie. And the fried tomatoes.

"We don't eat it all every time," Morrow joked.

Thomas Smith, 33, of Tampa has a system. First the classics: a corn dog and an elephant ear, then a turkey leg. Next the fried category: vegetables and Oreos. Then this year's front-runners, such as the Southern comfort ice cream and the bacon maple funnel cake.

"I've got to try anything with bacon," he said. "This is my first day here without the kids. I can enjoy it without spending a million dollars."

Despite the fun of exploring new flavors, fairgoers aren't naive about the health value of the food.

"The fair is sweets and fried food and food with too much salt," K.J. Gardener, 42, of Lakeland said.

As McMullen and Viscomi finished their ice cream, they took a digestive break.

"Now I'm not going to be able to eat anything for a week," McMullen said.

Vicomi nodded. "Good thing we have a lot of walking to do."

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com or 813) 661-2443. Keeley Sheehan can be reached at ksheehan@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2453.

Some (mostly) heavy reading

Bacon Maple Funnel Cake

Bacon-infused funnel cake topped with powdered sugar, homemade maple buttercream icing and real bacon bits.

Mobility: You could probably eat this while walking, but it's more easily enjoyed sitting down.

Portion: Perfect for two. The daring, and super hungry, can brave it on their own.

Ruling: It's the breakfast version of a funnel cake. "I'm nuts for bacon and maple," Ralph Beck, 73, of Dunedin said. "The only other thing you could do to make it better is put an egg in the middle."

Cotton Candy Funnel Cake

Cotton candy-infused funnel cake topped with pink or blue cotton candy-flavored icing.

Mobility: Super messy, especially that cotton candy sauce. Don't try to be a hero; grab a table and use a fork.

Portion: Too much for even three. Seven people could probably split this. Definitely don't try to take it on alone.

Ruling: Sweet as can be and worth the calories.

Amish doughnut

A glazed doughnut about the size of a toddler's head handmade throughout the day.

Mobility: Perfect for grab-and-go.

Portion: Sure, you could split it, but why would you want to?

Ruling: Buy one. Or two. Or a dozen to take home.

Southern comfort ice cream

Sweet potato ice cream mixed with seven ingredients, including waffle pieces and candied bacon.

Mobility: Unless you like the look of ice cream dripping down your chin, sit down. Bowl recommended over cone.

Portion: Two can split the regular portion and still have some left over.

Ruling: "I don't even like ice cream, but I absolutely love this," Barb McMullen, 59, of Trinity said.

Ramen Noodle Burger

A burger inside a ramen noodle bun with Asian slaw and sauce.

Mobility: Table and fork highly recommended. The noodles are softer than expected (in a good way) and fall apart a little.

Portion: If this is your main choice of the day, hog it all to yourself. A good-sized burger, but not so intimidating that you have to stop halfway through.

Ruling: Our favorite of the new selections. "It's not as zingy or vinegary as I thought it would be," Susan Coats, 53, of St. Petersburg said. "It's not very greasy. I thought the ramen would be harder but it's softer, which is a good thing."

3Bs Burger

A burger, bacon and beef brisket on top of two pieces of garlic toast, topped with provolone, vegetables and homemade horseradish, steak sauce or barbecue sauce.

Mobility: Fork optional, table mandatory.

Portion: Unless you really, really, really love meat, share it.

Ruling: A little bland and the flavors run together. Basically just a mouthful of meat.

Healthier Burger

A soy burger on a whole wheat bagel thin, topped with provolone, a slice of Parmesan-crusted eggplant and veggies.

Mobility: The most manageable of the three new specialty burgers, it's good on the go.

Portion: Good for one.

Ruling: A nice, flavorful alternative to other over-the-top burgers. But we suggest going big if you're at the fair.

Classic standbys

No description needed. Here are 10 tried-and-true fair snacks our sources recommend you don't miss out on.

Corn dog

Fried cheesecake

Elephant ear

Onion rings

Fried tomatoes

Giant pickle

Kettle corn

Beef tips

Ribbon fries

Cheese on a stick

Step right up for guilty pleasures at Florida State Fair 02/12/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 3:35pm]

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