You'll have no trouble finding food at the Maryland State Fair. Some of it is still walking around on hooves, granted. But once you're on the Midway, you'd have trouble swinging a test-your-strength mallet without hitting a stand selling corn dogs, fried dough, french fries or skewered chicken.
Oddly, as hamburgers have become the an upscale item and a precious gem in the locavore dining, they've nearly vanished from the fair's main street. Sausage is plentiful, but hot dogs are hardly seen.
The best food, or at least the most interesting, at the Maryland State Fair, with a few random exceptions, is found off the Midway, in the Exhibition Hall and in and around the Maryland Food Pavilions.
The Candy Family
In the Exhibition Hall, all the way in the back, beyond the beyond the state-agency booths, the teeth-whitening lounge and the cookware demonstrators, is the Bulk Candy Store. More fair-goers than you think make a beeline for Brian Shenkman's store as soon as they get in the gates.
There customers pick up a basket or a bucket and start filling them up. Some things, especially name-brand candy bars, are sold by the piece, but most selections are with sold by the pound — $3.89 for a half pound; fair warning, it adds up quickly. There are candies folks haven't seen in years, and won't see again until the next edition of the state fair — some of them things you thought they didn't make anymore — ancient treats like Necco Wafers and Beemans Gum and Baby Boomer favorites like Pop Rocks and wax candy stick tubes.
Besides working the state-fair circuit, Shenkman's family operates a mail-order business under the Bulk Candy Store banner. Bulk Candy Store is selling more than candy, of course. It's selling memories, too. Shenkman says that what sells well in Timonium, one of his favorite stops, doesn't necessarily go over in, say, Oklahoma City. Marylanders can't get enough Bulls-Eyes, aka Goetze's Caramel Creams, made in Baltimore. Folks around here are cool toward salt-water taffy, but Midwesterners, some of whom have never stepped foot inside a Candy Kitchen, are nuts for them.
Oklahoma Citians, you will be amazed to hear, love banana-flavored anything.
To each his own.
And Shenkman says you can never tell what will turn someone's head.
Except that one thing in particular has been turning heads this year — Bonomo Turkish Taffy. The once-famous whackable, crackable somewhat inscrutable caramel treat ceased production 25 years ago, only to be relaunched in 2010, making it one of the few name-brand candies to come back after having been away so long. Now manufactured in York, Pa., Turkish Taffy, back in its original packaging, was the big hit last summer at National Confectioners Association in Chicago annual Sweets and Snacks show.
Even before it disappeared in the early 1980s, Turkish Taffy had faded away, its brittle, "double-feature" formula softened into goo by the Tootsie Roll company, which had purchased from the original manufacturers. Before killing off Turkish Taffy for good, it took its name of the bar and renamed it Soft and Chewy Tootsie Taffy.
The new owners of Turkish Taffy spell out these sad details on their website's history page, but the Turkish Taffy story is a Hollywood tale of redemption, including an appearance on the Food Network's "Unwrapped" show, on which the host, Marc Summers, swooned over the bar, calling it the favorite sweet of his childhood.
What will you swoon over in the Bulk Candy Store?
Riding the nation's state-fair and rodeo circuits, Shenkman wears two hats, one when he's weighing up your bulk-candy purchases at the Bulk Candy Store, and another when he's tending the deep-fryer.
The Shenkman who fries up Pop-Tarts, Twinkies, Snickers and Three Musketeers bars at state fairs is the one who went on the "The View" this year to show off his signature novelty — the deep-fried buckeye. The buckeye, as anyone from Ohio knows, is a chocolate-and-peanut butter confection inspired by the nut produced by the Ohio state tree.
Shenkman debuted the fried buckeyes at the Ohio State Fair in 2009 and they made their Maryland State Fair debut in 2010, where they were an immediate hit, but maybe not on the bonkers level that there were in Ohio, where Shenkman estimates he sold 30,000 last time out.
Where, though, on the Timonium fairgrounds, will you find the deep-fried Kool-Aid and the deep-friend sticks of butter, the two current darlings of the deep-fried circuit? You won't.
"Honestly, it was terrible," Shenkman says about the deep-fried Kool-Aid. Always on the lookout for the next new — and good — thing, Shenkman took a pass. As for the deep-fried butter, there just wasn't enough time for him to perfect it for this year's state fair and rodeo circuit. But maybe next year.
Nothing would stop him from deep-frying something that someone else has deep-fried before him. There are no rules to the game, and no one can claim exclusive rights to an particular deep-fried treat. But there are bragging rights, and, Shenkman's biggest brags are for his buckeyes.
Shenkman's frying booth is within sight of the Maryland Foods Pavilion, a favorite stop among veteran fair attendees. Lined up here are booths selling crab cakes, catfish filet sandwiches, pork barbecue, charcoal-grilled-beef sandwiches, sweet-corn-on-the-cob, smoked ham, turkey legs, roasted barbecue chicken and fresh fruit salad.
Stan Dabkowski, director of the Maryland Foods Pavilion at the state fair, says that the perennial favorites here are the sweet corn, peach dumplings and lamb wraps. But the most favorite of all, Dabkowski says is the peach sundae, made with frozen vanilla yogurt, whipped cream and fresh Carroll County peaches. That's the one folks get most excited about being reunited with. Long lines form across the way at the Marlyland 4-H ice cream concession, adjacent to the milking barn.
Sweet iced tea has always been the most popular local beverage under the pavilion. But making its debut at the Maryland State Fair this year, the Brewers Association of Maryland hopes to change that, vending six of the Free State's favorite pours on selected evenings during the festival. On tap: DuClaw Sawtooth Belgian White, Baltimore-Washington Beer Works The Raven Special Lager, Brewers Alley Hefeweizen, Heavy Seas Loose Cannon, Pub Dog Blonde Dog and an American IPA with a name that's unprintable in a family newspaper.
Why this year have Maryland beers made their debut? Hugh Sisson, president of the brewers' association, said that the annual Oktoberfest event at the fairgrounds put his members in touch with the right decision-makers, people with enough clout to override the possible objections of the fair's major beer vendors.
"There's always been Maryland food here," Sisson said, "but never any Maryland beer. I'm glad we could make this happen."
If you go
•The Maryland State Fair runs through Sept. 5, at the state fairgrounds, 2200 York Road, Timonium. Midway rides, games and food stands will be open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday; then Monday through Thursday, noon to 10 p.m. Early-risers may attend livestock and horse shows in the various livestock buildings and show rings at 9 a.m.
•Admission to the fair in general is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and $3 for children ages 6 to 11. Children 5 and younger are admitted free. Rides are individually priced.