Matthew Dixon is a food vendor's dream at the Hernando County Fair and Youth Livestock Show.
The 38-year-old Spring Hill resident passionately declares: "I come to eat. It's the only reason I come to the fair. I'm a fair-food fanatic."
Over the weekend, Dixon bathed a nugget of fried cheddar in a ranch-jalapeno dip from the Hot Wisconsin Cheese trailer while his eyes strayed down the line of a dozen food stands at the fairgrounds.
"Everybody loves cheese, don't they?" he asked. "That's what all the ads on TV say."
The rapidly emptying cardboard dish attested to his assent.
"I'll probably go for a sausage and pepper sandwich next, then fresh-made lemonade. That acid in the lemon cuts through all the richness," he explained.
Dixon's wife, Ashley, 27, said she comes to the fair for the rides. Still, if she spies chocolate-covered bacon, a treat she sampled at the recent Strawberry Festival in Plant City, she'll spring for it.
Alas, the savory-sweet decadence is not to be found at this year's Hernando fair. But the adventurously hungry are otherwise tempted by gator, fried pickles, pizza in a cone, and funnel cakes dressed up with fruit or nuts or sauces or ice cream — or fried up from a red velvet batter.
Sherri Caldwell of Spring Hill, a new Florida resident and first-time fairgoer, finger-picked through a hand-size tray of gator and fries.
"I had (gator) years and years ago in Michigan," Caldwell, 58, said. "I don't really remember it. But this is pretty good — tender, seasoned very well.
"I'll try anything once, if it's reasonable."
The gator and fries ranks as the most popular main dish at Crackerbillies at the fair, said owner and fry man Ron Awad of Cape Coral.
His No. 1 side: fried pickles.
Nearby, Robert Saienni of Spring Hill seemed unable to wait for his sausage, onions and peppers to be shoveled from the grill. He asked Kathey Shockley of Shockley's, out of Waverly, Tenn., to hand over the crusty hoagie roll.
Saienni, 41, scooped out the roll's center, devouring it unadorned and handing a dough ball to his wife, Heather, 38.
"It's a New Jersey thing," he said.
Then, after Shockley filled it up, "it doesn't spill out, and the sausage doesn't shoot across the room."
Shockley said she has encountered the request before, "mostly up North."
Heather Saienni ordered both the steak and chicken, with teriyaki sauce, on a stick.
"I can't make up my mind which, so I got both," she said.
Darien Winburn of Brooksville licked every morsel from her fingers as she managed a platter-sized funnel cake under "a pile of cherries, with a scoop of ice cream and chocolate syrup on top."
"This is awesome," cooed the 19-year-old, going at it with a plastic fork. "It's pretty messy, though."
Business was unaccountably slow at the pizza cone place, a traditional favorite transposed into a decidedly unmessy offering. The dough, baked into the shape of a cone and loaded with homemade tomato sauce and cheese — with a choice of pepperoni or sausage — earned feature status when it debuted at the recent Florida State Fair in Tampa.
Owner Terry Desin, 50, of Ocala blamed slow sales on his stand's location, close to the fair entrance. Nonetheless, those who did indulge praised the flavor and portability.
And patted their tummies.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]