Advertisement

Who actually eats the Florida State Fair food? This Tampa thrill-seeker.

A food photographer takes us on a journey through the deep-fried halls of the Florida State Fair.
 
Tampa resident Chip Weiner, a freelance food photographer, holds up a piece of melty Wisconsin cheese curds that come with the Honey Bunny Curd Burger at the Florida State Fair. Weiner considers himself a bit of a food thrill-seeker and defends fair food.
Tampa resident Chip Weiner, a freelance food photographer, holds up a piece of melty Wisconsin cheese curds that come with the Honey Bunny Curd Burger at the Florida State Fair. Weiner considers himself a bit of a food thrill-seeker and defends fair food. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]
Published Feb. 10|Updated Feb. 17

TAMPA — The Florida State Fair, which opened Thursday for a 12-day run, is infamous for its weird takes on food, like pulled pork on top of a funnel cake or ice cream on a burger.

Tampa is often the place that debuts these famous concoctions. It is the birthplace of the Krispy Kreme Donut Burger, and it elevated the Pickle Pizza to national fame.

After having written dozens of stories on the fair and its food quirks over the years, I was curious who was actually enthusiastic about all the wacky options.

That led me to Chip Weiner.

Weiner, 66, is a certified mental health counselor who also has a flourishing freelance photography business with a specialty in food photography. He knows fine dining, and quotes the James Beard Award-winning bestselling book “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” in his defense of fair food.

Chip Weiner and Times reporter Sharon Kennedy Wynne check the food tour map in the visitor's guide to try food at the Florida State Fair.
Chip Weiner and Times reporter Sharon Kennedy Wynne check the food tour map in the visitor's guide to try food at the Florida State Fair. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

Deep-fried butter, for example, is a frequent punchline. He says: “It’s heaven.” Weiner compares the knob of cinnamon butter dipped in batter and deep-fried to a warm slice of toast with butter, cinnamon and sugar.

“Being a food photographer has expanded my knowledge and curiosity about different foods, flavors and combinations,” he said. “It has turned me into the occasional foodie thrill seeker.”

Having grown up in Tampa and attended the fair since the 1970s, he noticed in the past decade that they have branched out from the merely unhealthy corn dogs and elephant ears. It has become a contest of one-upmanship among the vendors to produce the most bizarre combinations.

At the Florida State Fair, Tampa resident Chip Weiner gets ready to try a Pop Rocks Pickle, a garlic dill that was wrapped in a Fruit Roll-Up, dipped in chocolate and topped with Pop Rocks candy.
At the Florida State Fair, Tampa resident Chip Weiner gets ready to try a Pop Rocks Pickle, a garlic dill that was wrapped in a Fruit Roll-Up, dipped in chocolate and topped with Pop Rocks candy. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

Beyond the deep-fried Oreos (which Weiner finds kind of soggy), he has noticed the real vendor skill seems to be in naming the item. In 2011, there was the Grilled Meatloaf Sundae. The name sounds odd, but it turned out to be a scoop of mashed potatoes with a slice of meatloaf and some gravy and vegetables on top. It was still good, he said, but not nearly as exotic as it sounded.

That was his challenge to me as we headed out on opening day of the fair: Ignore the title of the item and just try it. He was right. Some things weren’t as awful as they seemed.

The Florida State Fair returned for a 12-day run as the first state fair in the country this year. Running Feb. 8 through Feb. 19, it is famous for its weird food concoctions.
The Florida State Fair returned for a 12-day run as the first state fair in the country this year. Running Feb. 8 through Feb. 19, it is famous for its weird food concoctions. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

We ventured out with the fair’s very helpful visitor’s guide that includes a food tour section with pictures of two dozen new offerings and a map of where to find them. There’s even a QR code in the guide to vote for your favorites.

Planning your weekend?

Planning your weekend?

Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter

We’ll deliver ideas every Thursday for going out, staying home or spending time outdoors.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Weiner beelined for the Bacon, Caramel and Peanut Butter Apple Fries. Thick wedges of Granny Smith apples are battered, deep-fried and covered in cinnamon sugar. They are then drizzled with caramel and topped with bacon bits and peanut butter crumbles. Then, a scoop of ice cream and whipped cream and more peanut butter crumbles on top.

This apple fries booth at the Florida State Fair offers Bacon, Caramel and Peanut Butter Apple Fries.
This apple fries booth at the Florida State Fair offers Bacon, Caramel and Peanut Butter Apple Fries. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

We dug into the towering dessert and were reminded of a warm apple crisp. Hunt for the bacon to get each flavor in the bite for a whole salty-sweet combination that we both loved. It’s not cheap at $15, but easily can be shared between two or three people.

This same apple fries booth (winner of last year’s People’s Choice award for sweet treat of the year at the fair) had a Jolly Rancher Slush ($10) that they first debuted at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City in 2021. The tall drink of neon-colored crushed ice has some showstopper toppings: a mound of Nerds, jelly beans, gummy worms, a lollipop and ribbons of rainbow gummy candy.

The Jolly Rancher Slush ($10) is sold at the Apple Fries Concession at the Florida State Fair.
The Jolly Rancher Slush ($10) is sold at the Apple Fries Concession at the Florida State Fair. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

“It’s good,” Weiner said of the slushy that was surprisingly not overly sweet until you got to the toppings. “It’s ridiculous looking. But it’s good.”

Next up, we had to try the most notorious of all the new offerings: the Pop Rocks Pickle.

Shockley’s Food Service co-owner Linda Shockley said the longtime vendors were inspired by a Food Network show on wacky foods to come up with a creation that takes a big garlic dill pickle, wraps it in a Fruit Roll-Up, dips it in chocolate and then rolls it in your choice of Pop Rocks, Fruity Pebbles or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Shockley’s Food Service co-owner Linda Shockley wraps a garlic dill pickle with a Fruit Roll-up at the Florida State Fair. She will then dip it in chocolate and top it with Pop Rocks. She also makes them topped with Fruity Pebbles or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Shockley’s Food Service co-owner Linda Shockley wraps a garlic dill pickle with a Fruit Roll-up at the Florida State Fair. She will then dip it in chocolate and top it with Pop Rocks. She also makes them topped with Fruity Pebbles or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

We went for the $12 marquee item and watched as Shockley carefully dipped a giant fruit leather-wrapped pickle in semisweet chocolate.

Hoo boy. I took a big bite into the middle of the pickle. Juice dripped to the ground, and I tasted the fruit leather and chocolate more than anything. A few of the Pop Rocks fizzled on my tongue.

It wasn’t as awful as it sounds, but still kind of awful.

Times reporter Sharon Kennedy Wynne tries the Pop Rock Pickle at the Florida State Fair.
Times reporter Sharon Kennedy Wynne tries the Pop Rock Pickle at the Florida State Fair. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

Weiner said he was interested in the experience of how all those flavors came together. The chocolate flavor hits first, then the garlicky, salty pickle and then the Fruit Roll-Up leaves its distinct presence.

“It was an interesting taste journey, starting sweet and ending sweet with some salty sour in the middle,” Weiner said.

That same Shockley’s booth also debuted the Honey Bunny Curd Burger ($16) — a hamburger topped with cheese curds, lettuce and tomato that is nestled between two Honey Buns, the vending machine staple.

Cary Seaholm serves up a Jolly Rancher Slush at the Florida State Fair.
Cary Seaholm serves up a Jolly Rancher Slush at the Florida State Fair. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

Weiner has long defended the infamous Krispy Kreme Donut Burger that made its world debut at the Florida State Fair in 2010. It remains one of its top sellers. The flavor profile hits all of Weiner’s top spots: Beef and bacon bring the salt and the fat, the doughnut kicks in some sweetness to counter the salt, the cheese adds some creaminess and the onion some acid.

“It works,” Weiner insisted.

Weiner cuts the Honey Bunny Curd Burger in half before trying it at the Florida State Fair. The $16 burger uses Honey Bun pastries to hold a burger topped with Wisconsin cheese curds.
Weiner cuts the Honey Bunny Curd Burger in half before trying it at the Florida State Fair. The $16 burger uses Honey Bun pastries to hold a burger topped with Wisconsin cheese curds. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

The Honey Bun burger was like a cousin of the Donut Burger. I hate Honey Buns, so I couldn’t get past that part. But the buns are a little sturdier than a soft yeasty doughnut. Weiner’s problem? Cheese curds add a nice buttery quality, but they don’t have the cheesy flavor you get from a gooey slice of cheddar or American cheese. But he still liked the salty and sweet flavor profile.

We were starting to hit our limit, but we wanted to try one more newbie. I had my eye on the Spicy Korean Corndog, and there was also a tempting trio of vegetarian Bang Bang Tacos made with fried cauliflower, mushrooms or vegan shrimp.

The Honey Bunny Curd Burger ($16)  sold at Shockley's Food Service at the Florida State Fair is a hamburger topped with cheese curds, lettuce and tomato that is nestled between two Honey Buns.
The Honey Bunny Curd Burger ($16) sold at Shockley's Food Service at the Florida State Fair is a hamburger topped with cheese curds, lettuce and tomato that is nestled between two Honey Buns. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

But this being the year of powerful women, the Barbie Funnel Cake ($14) won as our final stop. Longtime vendor Paulette Keene was inspired by all the attention the “Barbie” movie has received.

All things “Barbie” are pink and sweet, and so is this funnel cake. Not only is it drizzled with pink icing, but it has powdered sugar and two kids of sprinkles. We both were yearning for a cup of coffee to go with all that sugar.

The Barbie Funnel Cake ($14) is pink and sweet with two kids of sprinkles at the Florida State Fair.
The Barbie Funnel Cake ($14) is pink and sweet with two kids of sprinkles at the Florida State Fair. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

Too full to keep going, we declared the rest of the food stalls a hill to climb another day. Weiner said the hurdle he has to get people to overcome is usually the title of the dish, not what they end up tasting like.

“I think if I could blindfold them and stuff the goodies into their mouth, most of them would be thrilled,” Weiner said. The assumption that all fair food is bad for you is hard to overcome, too.

“The yuck factor is too strong. Their loss!”