All’s fair in Fair food

Now here’s a sentence I never heard myself saying: “Tell me about your Famous Pork Boners.”

I was in the midst of my annual orgy of bad eating at the Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Junction, Vermont last week, deciding whether to get another helping of Fat Daddy’s mighty tasty onion rings, when I saw they were serving something called a Famous Pork Boner. And so I asked. I had to: My sister-in-law has lived in Paris for 30 years, and one thing I have learned from her is that in France, at least, there is no part of an animal you don’t eat. In this case, a Famous Pork Boner isn’t quite as bad as it sounds.

“It’s a two-ounce piece of pork shank, deep fried, and covered with our homemade barbecue sauce,” explained Tom Critchlow of Fat Daddy’s. (My wife in particular breathed a sigh of relief, because she had noticed there was a sign for something called a Boner Platter.)

Part of the Famous Pork Boner’s appeal, I imagine, is that it’s fried. Fried food always beats out unfried food at the Champlain Valley Fair. Actually, this is true at all county fairs (Very dedicated readers might recall that earlier this summer I enjoyed fried Oreos at the Addison County Fair and Field Days). It’s only a matter of time before someone figures out how to coat chocolate pudding in batter and fry it. Next year, I fully expect the sugar house to be offering deep fried maple cotton candy.

How universal is this fried-beats-unfried rule? I asked Julie Gumienny at Mr. Sausage which was the most popular: the Italian sausage, the Polish kielbasa or the German bratwurst. To be honest, I thought this was a foreign policy question and I was hoping to trigger an international incident. “Oh, the Italian sausage, by far,” she answered. Why? “It’s the one that’s fried.”

She also told me that it isn’t uncommon for people to order “two Italians and a large fries” to go with their Bloomin’ Onion — and then a Diet Coke. It’s the Diet Coke that always cracks her up.

I am not judging people who consume two Italians, large fries and a Bloomin’ Onion. I’m no slouch when it comes to binge eating at the fair.

I do, however, have the common sense to steer clear of certain rides after chowing down a Mini Cooper-sized portion of fried onion rings. Not everyone does, and the result isn’t pretty. Just ask Hairy (yes, with an “I” rather than two “R”s), the chef behind Hairy’s Famous Philly Cheesesteak at the Mojo Cafe and Grill.

The Mojo sits at a corner of the fairgrounds near such stomach-turning classic rides as the Freak Out, the Tango and the Himalaya. There Hairy whips up his renowned shaved steak, provolone cheese, peppers and onions on a soft hoagie roll and serves it to fair patrons about to climb aboard the aforementioned rides. What happens next? “I have friends who run the rides coming over and asking me for buckets of water,” Hairy said, rolling his eyes as he envisions the cleanup. Hairy also sells corn dogs and here, he said, is a county fair truism: “Corn dogs and rides don’t always mix.”

Somehow, we all lose complete culinary common sense at the fair. Betty Grout at Tootsie’s told me that she had someone order a slab of fried dough with chocolate sauce and then come back asking for pizza sauce to be drizzled on top of the chocolate. Michele Anderson of Dan’s Fried Dough said one customer wanted mustard on top of her cinnamon and sugar wedge. “I said to her, it’s not a pretzel,” Michele recalls.

But time is running out to find your favorite meat on a stick at the fair. Time is running out to find what foods are now being fried. There is today and tomorrow. So, head to the Champlain Valley Fair. And, if you’re as mature as I am, be sure to ask strangers where you can get a Famous Pork Boner.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 6, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.