Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Topsfield Fair: Navigating a Food Jungle

Pffffftttt! I'm at the Topsfield Fair.
Me too.
And us.
There is no questioning the quaint, friendly, enjoyable atmosphere of the Topsfield Fair in Topsfield, Massachusetts. They've held the fair since 1818, and have therefore secured the title of "America's Oldest Agricultural Fair." Just as with the turning of the leaves, each year as summer retreats, I hold fast to the next best thing, looking forward to the coming of the Topsfield Fair. You could say, why not go to the Big E in Springfield, MA? Why? Because it sucks compared to the Topsfield Fair. After attending the Big E once, and dodging throngs of tour buses, and generally ill behaved young people (you know who you are... your grandma would be ashamed, and it's hard to shame a grandma), I left feeling like it was too big, and lacked any real charm. ::shrugs:: I don't really mean to offend anyone that loves the Big E. But I am here to advocate for my favorite agricultural fair of all time. So, may I suggest making the journey up to Topsfield, and you're in luck because the fair is still running for the rest of this week. There are cows, sheep, goats, alpacas, rabbits, guinea pigs, elephants, ponies, horses, vegetables, flowers, gadgets, gizmos, and demonstrations of all sorts. Today, I enjoyed holding a baby chick, and petting a number of soft, fuzzy creatures, while later in the day staring in awe at the prize winning pumpkin, and wondering if next year I should enter the pie baking contest. 
But, let's face it. You come to this site to read about the food!!!!! 
There is a food stand at every corner of the Topsfield Fair, and this increases the danger that you might squander a space in your stomach on a not up to snuff Italian sausage, or a piece of fried dough that isn't fresh. So, I'm here to encourage you to dabble, but also to point out what items we have found over the years that are not to be missed.
Anna's Fried Dough
1. Anna's Fried Dough. It's kind of like breakfast right? Arriving at the fair around 11 am, and needing a little sustenance, I find that our party most often looks forward to that first bite of crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, freshly fried, frisbee of fried dough. The key to finding great fried dough at the fair is to look for the sign that reads "Anna's." If you look for this sign, you are guaranteed to see the nice young lady in the stand venture to the rear of the cooking area, carefully pull a wad of dough until it's pretty darn thin in the center, and then gently drop it into a bubbling vat of grease. She'll collect your money just in time to serve the puffed up snack. A sprinkle of sugar and you're good to go. 
The Fried Dough
It's not greasy at all, and the warm interior to the dough is one of the delights that accompanies anything that has been freshly fried. My mom delights in the fried dough, sprinkling with powered sugar and cinnamon, just enough to have stray dust particles adorn her clothing. I can't say that I blame her, as every bite is warm, buttery, sweet, and chewy, like a perfect yeast donut. Of course, the danger is that if you order your fried dough from just any stand, then they might have a pre-fried disk, just in the back ready to be handed down to you, and this makes for a soggy bit of greasy mess. So avoid just any stand, and head straight to Anna's.
Smoked Turkey Leg
2. Smoked Turkey Leg. Now, I love the irony of somebody like me walking around anywhere with a Flintstone looking thing like a smoked turkey leg. If I walked to work once in a while just to see what reaction I get, wielding a smoked turkey leg, the looks would be some mix of horror and envy. But at the fair, it's just "where did she get that" sort of glances. And why not? It's big, and it's delicious.
So, at the Topsfield Fair, there are only a couple stands that I've noticed that sell the smoked turkey leg. The best is probably the Dragon's Feast stand out near where all the kiddie rids are located. The smoked turkey leg is heavily salted, and speckled with pepper, deeply smoked, and surprisingly not dried out. Bite after bite, the dark meat of the turkey leg is just salty, savory, and since it's not fried, I feel a little bit like I'm still allowed to eat more later. Hell, if it were fried, I'd still eat more later. This is my time to shine. And yours too, but if you want something to hold and roam with, the turkey leg is a great selection at the fair.
Where to get your Gobbler
The Gobbler
3. The Gobbler. Oh my goodness, the gobbler. There are a number of stands at the fair offering sandwiches and other items that feature some kind of meat wrapped in a bun. There are also a number of stands, including church groups, that are offering full turkey dinners. But what if you want both? I want a sandwich and a turkey dinner, and guess what? I want it to be delicious and memorable! The gobbler is a beautiful thing. In a large, speckled with grain, torpedo roll, the people that run the stand pile on freshly carved turkey breast (from a real turkey!), heap on delicious, home made stuffing with fresh spices and probably loads of butter, and then dollop generous globs of cranberry sauce right on top. I've never been disappointed with a gobbler, and if you're into sharing, I'd say one gobbler is big enough for two people to split, and then still charge head on into the food scene with a little space left, and high hopes for something equally as delicious on the fair grounds.
The German Fries Stand
The German Fries
4. German French Fries. I love french fries. I love potato chips. And if you go to a fair and don't eat some sort of potato in fried form, you're probably doing yourself a terrible injustice. Let's face it. They're the ultimate side dish. So when you order your gobbler, make sure to head next door for an order of the fried German potatoes. Each piece is sort of a thick ripple potato chip, but so thick that the center has the consistency of a french fry. After each order, the cooks proceed to take pre-fried potatoes back to the vat for their necessary crisping. They come out of a wire strainer, glistening with oil, and super hot. Sprinkle with salt as you move down the line with your little Styrofoam dog dish looking thing, and make sure to add some ketchup. 
Fry after fry, they're difficult to stop eating, and a lot of fun to share. Who doesn't like any excellent rendition on a french fry or a potato chip? If you know someone you who feels animosity toward fried potatoes should submit their name to the "I suck" bureau for immediate review.
Get your Funnel Cake,
Fried Oreos, Fried Kool
5. Funnel Cake. Having grown up in the South, my bigger half loves funnel cake, but I didn't even know what the hell it was until I met him. Since then, he's waxed poetic regarding his beloved funnel cake, and wept at a world with me where it was largely absent. I guess it's much more prominent south of the Mason-Dixon. But not at the Topsfield Fair. They have excellent funnel cake, consisting of little noodles of batter squirted into the shape of a circle into a bubble vat of oil. When finished, those little noodles bubble up in an abnormal shape, and create a crispier version of fried dough. Generous shakes of powdered sugar, and the love of my life trots away from the stand like he's won something grand. If you like funnel cake, then this place is not to be missed. Also, if you want to try offerings like fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fried koolaid, and fried oreo cookies, this is the only stand that offers it. So take a long hard look at that picture, because that's where you'll find the new big thing that might kill you.
Pickled Eggs!
6. Pickles and pickled eggs. In the vegetable building, you'll find the proud winner of the biggest pumpkin prominently on display in a huge glass display. There are umpteen varieties of vegetables that have won all of the ribbons throughout the building. There are painted pumpkins from the local girl scout troops, and the biggest gourds you've ever seen. But if you're still hungry, you'll find hot apple cider donuts, apple cider, and a whole slew of vegetables for sale. I personally like to end the day by snacking on a pickled egg or a dill pickle.
Now, we all know what a dill pickle tastes like, but if you want a great dill pickle, you go to the little stand in the vegetable building, and you tell me whether it hits the mark. If you want something a little unusual, something reminiscent of bar food that still hasn't come back for a serious killing, you order one of their pickled, hard boiled eggs. One of the gentlemen will reach down into a large jar of hard boiled eggs that have been brined in vinegar, a mix of spices, and a good dose of garlic cloves, and hand you one of these white oblong beauties in a little plastic bag. The pickled eggs are tangy, they're salty, and they're saturated with flavor. For one last delicious close encounter before leaving the fair, and a little bit of a weird food item that may prove less harmful than a fried twinky, you'll do well to enjoy a salty, tangy pickled egg.
7. The Jerky. There is a little known jerky stand at the rear of an offshoot room of the trade show auditorium. While multiple venders try to sell their vegetable peelers and hot tubs, you'll find a small stand with oodles of elk, bison, venison, and beef jerky in different flavors. The kind gentleman running the stand will offer you all sorts of delicious samples, before you inevitably shell out a little cash for the best jerky in these parts. Today, we left with a hunk of the teriyaki jerky, and a stick of the elk, before munching our way happily throughout the rest of the stands. (Apologies for no photo on this one.)
As you can tell, I had a lovely time at the fair with my family, which is how it should be. There are plentiful rides, loads of cuddly animals, entertainment and games, but the food is truly fantastic. I hope that next time you venture to the fair, you can seek out some of the more delicious offerings that I've described above. Don't be suckered into eating shitty fried dough. Nobody deserves that.

Topsfield Fair
207 Boston Street
Topsfield, MA 01983

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