Snack foods are a major part of the appeal for people attending summer fairs, exhibitions, and carnivals.
Though they might seldom be the kinds of fare recommended by nutritionists, fun foods such as caramel apples, sugar-dusted little doughnuts, cotton candy, and corn dogs have all been a staple of such public events in North America for more than a century.
Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) is no exception, and its unveiling of some of its food concessions’ new offerings for its annual end-of-summer fair has been highly anticipated in recent years, especially since unusual and sometimes downright weird “carnival foods” have become a trend on fair midways during the past decade or so.
Deep-fried Mars bars and Oreo cookies seem to have kick-started the trend (it’s no fad, with the still-popular cookie having been introduced at the Los Angeles County Fair 20 years ago), and entrepreneurs have been scrambling to outdo each other in the weirdness category ever since.
As a result, American and Canadian fairgoers have been introduced to such bizarre snacks (often deep-fried and served on a stick) as battered-and-fried insects (including chocolate-covered scorpions), burgers served between glazed doughnuts instead of buns, hot beef sundaes, fried beer, python kebabs, and deep-fried jelly beans. (The less said about the Wisconsin State Fair’s Elvis on a Stick, the better.)
This year’s PNE offerings include two that are currently in the process of being road-tested on the Canadian Prairies by enterprising B.C. concessions owners: a squid-ink Korean corn dog and mac ’n’ cheese ice cream.
Scott Dennis of SaltSpring Concessions spoke to the Straight by phone from Regina, where he and partner Karlye are marketing the mollusc-flavoured meal.
“It’s our number-two seller right now,” Dennis said. “The ‘pickle dog’ is number one, then the squid dog, then the corn dog.”
Dennis—who has sold food at the PNE since 2011, when he and Karlye ran a Noodle Bar concession—said they aren’t novices when it comes to weird eating: “We’ve done a peanut-butter burger, flaming-hot Cheetos corn dog, chicken feet and chicken hearts...” he said.
Were they all deep-fried? “Yes, of course, like most things at the fair.”
The squid-ink Korean corn dog isn’t attempting to cash in on the popularity of the recently popular South Korean TV series Squid Game, Dennis said.
“No, I actually did a lot of research,” he explained. “You start out with half a hot dog and flay the end so it looks like a squid.” He then puts it on a stick, forms mozzarella cheese over the remaining half-stick, rolls it in inked batter and panko crumbs, then, of course, puts it in the deep fryer.
“It actually has a nice flavour,” he enthused. “When you bite into it, there’s a mozzarella-cheese flavour. The batter has the squid ink and food colouring.”
Dennis tested the snack in Edmonton and at Calgary’s famed Stampede before heading to Regina. “It was one of our top sellers in Calgary and Edmonton,” he said. “I love seeing the looks on people’s faces.”
SaltSpring Concessions will be joined in weird fair fare at the PNE this year by Marchant Concessions, which will be touting its mac ’n’ cheese ice cream for curious (or horrified) customers. The owners of the two companies have been friends for years and are even headquartered near each other in Penticton, B.C.
Cole Marchant told the Straight by phone that he has been travelling and selling food at fairs with his parents for decades, since he was five, including at the PNE. “I absolutely love it,” he asserted. “I would not do anything else.”
His mac ‘n’ cheese soft-serve ice cream is served in a cup and has the Day-Glo–yellow colour of the famed Kraft Dinner product, a Canadian staple.
“Every year, we just product-test all these weird ideas,” he said. “Ice cream is the easiest base to add things to.” Previous frozen oddities he has sold include charcoal and butter-beer flavours, and he tested this latest version at the Stampede this year.
“Some people liked it and some people hated it, but that’s what you want,” he said. “If you have something that’s not that weird, people are going to walk on by.”More