TAMPA — After being cooped up in a pandemic, going to the Florida State Fair feels like Friday night. It’s the hope of the weekend, the lure of excess. If you are not careful, your picture could end up on your community’s Facebook group under the phrase, “HAVE YOU SEEN THIS WOMAN?”
It’s all there for the taking! Pork and burgers and cakes and fried butter and candy, a veritable advent calendar of sodium chloride and glucose. Since the fair opened two months later than scheduled, organizers really went for it. This year, they created a Fair Food Tour.
This is helpful. It’s not always easy to locate highly publicized fair foods, realizing you passed the gelato nachos en route to the chainsaw contest (a sentence of real things, I swear). A hand-held map points guests to 12 dishes, including an orange glaze funnel cake, a tater burger, a Miami seafood salad and other, you know, whole foods.
What do you get if you finish the tour? Well, I don’t know. What do you get if you are accepted into the National Honor Society? You get HONOR. I think this is a similar situation. The fair also encourages voting for favorites via a QR code.
First, some ground rules. I did not try the buzzed-about pickle pizza. I will defend your right to it, but I hate pickles. This is the last time I will be saying “pickle” in this column. Please enjoy your p*ckle p*zza, and leave me alone.
Second, I had to make it home, not to a hospital. Finally, there was the matter of masks. They’re required in indoor fair locations and outside when not eating. It was hot, but I stuck to my mask, except when shoveling food like a row crop tractor.
Buffalo Chicken Sundae
My first stop was Deanna’s Steak Sundaes, which layers meats, potatoes and unspeakable things in a bowl. This version had buffalo chicken, fries, ranch and giardiniera. A woman in front of me ordered the same thing but doused hers in Frank’s Red Hot while staring with a steely gaze. Nothing but respect for my president.
I ate this in the Grove, the fair’s cute new craft beer garden with cornhole, comfy seats and picnic tables. I was underwhelmed by the sundae — it is basically nugs and fries in a bowl — but since it was early, I passively overate anyway. Plus, a Pat Benatar tribute concert started right in front of me. Who could stop?
Blueberry and Cream Doughnut
I stopped at Peachey’s Baking Co. because it was aesthetically pleasing to me, an elder millennial. A great way to get money from us is to make your food truck teal and pick a cute font. A woman handed me a plate-sized doughnut towering with miles of whipped cream and berries. I teetered back to the Benatar concert, because while I am young enough to choose food for Instagram potential, I was not born yesterday.
As Heartbreaker rang out, I ate what might be the best doughnut of my life. It tasted more like a funnel cake, fried and warm and sweet. I cannot imagine anyone selecting a puckle puzza over this. The berries were fine but superfluous. We’re not here for fruit.
I walked past Low N Slow a few times, unsure. The PigRig was No. 1 on the map and had been calling to me all day. After an air-conditioning break in the nearby expo hall, and several infiltration attempts by a Verizon salesperson, I had to decide. And I decided I was here to bring pride on my family name.
“A PigRig, please,” I said.
The food truck guy asked about my eye color. This is how people flirt in 2021, because the eyes are the only game left. This gentle overture restored my soul, and I walked off convinced I could do anything, including appeal to younger men after sweating for two-plus hours and expelling fry breath into my mask. Sorry to anyone I might be married to, but this is just how it is.
The sandwich was Texas toast, pulled pork, American cheese and, the pièce de résistance, a big scoop of macaroni and cheese. I can’t tell you if it was good or not. I think it was good? I could only taste my own tears as I pushed down three bites. Somewhere, a pookle pooza cackled.
Funnel Cake Cider
Able to consume only liquids now, I went off-map and tried the new cider from Plant City’s Keel & Curley back at the Grove. After tasting the sweet, refreshing drink, I said to myself, “Hmm, self, hmm.” I craned to read the poster better, and yep. It was alcoholic. For these reasons, I will be giving this beverage a positive review, stellar, outstanding, truly tremendous.
But I only had a few sips, because it was time to drive my bloated corpse home. I kicked back and watched a man in a cowboy hat, who appeared to be a few ciders in, sing and dance to Life Is a Highway. It was poetic. I faded into the familiar taste of defeat.
If you go
The Florida State Fair runs through May 2. Masks are required and sanitation stations are throughout. $9, $7 seniors, $5 ages 6-11, 5 and younger free. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. 4800 U.S. 301 N, Tampa. 800-345-3247.
Get Stephanie’s newsletter
For weekly bonus content and a look inside columns by Stephanie Hayes, sign up for the free Stephinitely newsletter.