The Florida State Fair returns for its nearly two-week run today with the usual mix of carnival rides and deep-fried outrages encircling a sandy expanse of pavilions containing farm animals, arts and crafts, live entertainment and a new emphasis on Florida history to mark the 500th anniversary of a guy named Ponce first stepping foot in the Sunshine State.
First, the food
The most popular attraction of the state fair is the fare. Just what have they thought of to deep fry this year? Old favorites like chocolate-covered bacon, deep-fried Snickers and the Krispy Kreme cheeseburger are returning but there are some new curiosities this year:
Pizza Cone: This is a good example of what fairs seem to do best: Take something that's already easy to eat on the move and make it cheesier and messier. The pizza crust is in the shape of an ice cream cone and filled with cheese, pepperoni, sausage and tomato sauce, all baked in an oven. You end up with a concoction not too easy to set down and we have visions of pizza sauce dripping out of the cone, but it's still ingenious.
Chicken and Cereal on a Stick: It sounds tame enough, but wait there's more to it. You pick from one of four cereals: Cap'n Crunch, Peanut Butter Crunch, Rice Krispies or Honey Bunches of Oats. They pulverize the cereal to make a breading and flash fry the chicken on a stick and then drizzle it with peanut butter sauce or honey and (brace yourself) marshmallow drizzle for the Rice Krispies version.
Burger mania: There's lots of burger ingenuity this year. There's a Burger with the Redneck Attitude, which is topped with cheese, bacon, fried bologna, baked beans and a generous handful of potato sticks. The Philly Burger is like the signature steak sandwich except it's chopped burger meat sauteed with mushrooms and onion then topped with provolone cheese before you add condiments (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle). More pizza madness is found in the Burger Pisa, a burger topped with mozzarella cheese, Italian sauce, pepperoni, fresh basil and optional sauteed mushrooms and onion. And they go for fancy with the Uptown Burger, a fresh burger topped with mozzarella cheese, tomato, Italian sauce and fresh basil.
New vendors: This year they include Two Asians and a Grill offering Japanese-style steak, chicken, and shrimp; Carley's Sea Side Grille, which will be grilling up shrimp, lobster and even filet mignon, anyway you want it. But it's Walker Seafood, featuring alligator and shark meat that likely will get the most attention from the adventurous eater.
Music and entertainment
LeAnn Rimes (Feb. 18) is the biggest headliner of the fair this year, performing at 7:30 p.m. in the Entertainment Hall. Tickets start at $25, not including fair admission.
An unusual choice is the Gainesville punk band Less Than Jake on Feb. 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 VIP seating, $10 reserved seating and limited free mezzanine level bleacher seating. Fair admission required.
Other acts include:
Starship featuring Mickey Thomas at 7:30 p.m. Monday. Concert admission is $15 VIP seating, $10 reserved seating and limited free mezzanine level bleacher seating. Fair admission required.
The Bellamy Brothers at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $15 VIP seating, $10 reserved seating and limited free mezzanine level bleacher seating. Fair admission required.
Zoom'N is a "Broadway-style musical journey of Florida's history" that has been created especially for the Florida State Fair for daily performances.
History in the making
This year is the 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon's arrival in Florida. The fair will salute the anniversary with exhibits such as "Florida Agriculture: 500 Years in the Making," which is a look at the history of farming in the state. The pun-loving fair organizers have added a new "ConquistaTOUR," a self-guided exploration of the 330-acre fairgrounds, with stops at the "Mooternity Ward" livestock exhibit under the fair's "COWquistador" logo. Pick up a map at Guest Services, visit the 10 tour locations and get the map stamped at each. Complete 8 of the 10 stops and receive a Cow-quistador sticker. There's also a new Florida Cattlemen's Museum, Florida's Learning Garden to get tips on how to grow produce, herbs and fruit here, and Cow Hunter's Camp in Cracker Country.
The fair seems to have as many discount days as it does deep fryers. For a complete list, go to floridastatefair.com/state-fair/daily-discounts.