Golden hot oil burbles in generous vats at dozens of food stands throughout the Maryland State Fair. Sweet and heavy, greasy and cloying, the midway wears the perfume of fried everything, its signature scent.
Fried dough, fried candy bars, fried Twinkies. Fried fudge, fried mushrooms, fried onion blooms. Fried Oreos, fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fried chicken nuggets.
At state fairs nationwide, pushing the limits of what to batter and oil is considered a test of heartland ingenuity, like raising prizewinning livestock or growing a record-breaking gourd. And yet, even on the midways, among the most deep-fried of American traditions, they're worrying - just a little - about trans fats.
As American obesity rates set off ever-louder alarms, trans fats are fast becoming the food industry's artery-clogging outlaw.
First the federal government required that trans fats be noted on product labels. Then late last year, New York City banned them from restaurants altogether, followed by Philadelphia and Montgomery County. A handful of fast food chains followed suit.
But this summer when the Indiana State Fair, a granddaddy of the fair circuit, banished trans fats, forbidding all vendors from using them, it was like the death knell: Trans fats' days seem numbered.
"When you're covering everything with powdered sugar, it's kind of hard to worry about fat - but we're probably going to be forced to do it," says David Campbell, general manager of Deggeller Foods, the main vendor for the Maryland State Fair, where trans fats are allowed - for now.
"In the next couple of years, I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't even available."
Here, at the Maryland Watermen's seafood booth, manager Bob Cooper says they prepare their entire menu with oil that's free of trans fats. Though people are still eating fried soft-shell crabs, fried clams, fried crab cakes and fried catfish, Cooper feels good about its being somewhat healthier for them.
"It's a health issue," he says. "Everything's relative."
Trans fats, often found in oils used for fast food and packaged snacks, can clog arteries and lead to heart disease. Studies blame the fats for as many as 50,000 fatal heart attacks a year.
The American Heart Association recommends that people limit trans fats to less than 1 percent of their daily calories. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that's just 2 grams of trans fats, or less than one doughnut.
The days of eating in blissful ignorance are over, says Julie Greenstein, deputy director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the organization often referred to as "the food police."
"People are becoming aware," she says. "Trans fat is really the worst fat, gram for gram, that's out there. And there are alternatives."
"People just realize it's not good for you. People don't want it in their food."
In Indiana, a nutritionally savvy fair director pushed for the ban this summer - but only after trans fat-free oil passed muster in a taste test with the fair staff. As fair spokesman Andy Klotz puts it, "The No. 1 topic about the Indiana State Fair is food."
Disappointing folks was not an option. When Klotz sampled pork tenderloin, fries, a corn dog and an elephant ear - all cooked in healthier oil - he was surprised to find that the food not only didn't suffer, it also tasted better.
"If you can put out as good a product or better and save the people some trans fats, there's no downside to it from our perspective," he says.
Other folks, however, had a slightly different perspective. Fair administrators fielded more than a little razzing from folks who called them over-regulating killjoys.
"People were saying, 'Don't ruin our fun,'" Klotz says. "Like we really are by making it just a smidge healthier."
Campbell, the Maryland State Fair's primary vendor, is oh-so-familiar with what he calls "the trans fat thing." The Florida-based proprietor knows some fair vendors who offer two funnel cakes - one with, one without the naughtiest of fats. He has seen booths post signs boasting healthier oils.
Yet he'll make the switch only when he has to. State fairs, he points out dryly, aren't exactly health food emporiums.
"We used to have a salad and wrap joint, but it died a miserable death," he says. "A lot of people still want the good ol' taste of back when."
The taste of "back when" could soon include the flavor of trans fat.
California is considering a statewide ban.
Though Maryland lawmakers rebuffed a proposed ban this year, the legislation is expected to resurface.
In Howard County, the health department debuted the "Healthy Howard" program, where restaurants that meet a number of standards, including being trans fat-free, can apply for a decal to hang in the establishment.
In Baltimore, health officials dropped off letters this spring at 3,000 restaurants urging them to cut unhealthy fats.
And at the bantransfat.com Web site, which celebrated its 1-million-visitor milestone this year, people can buy T-shirts that say "Don't partially hydrogenate me."
"We think in the next decade trans fat will be out of the food supply completely," says Greenstein of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Adds Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua M. Sharfstein: "It will be a question facing every jurisdiction in the country."
At the Maryland fair, Pearl Levengood helps manage the Little Richard's booth, where they fry everything from Oreos to Twinkies in creamy liquid shortening thick with trans fat.
One of her cooks takes a Twinkie on a stick, twirls it through funnel cake batter, and then drops it into a vat of hot oil, which it hits with a sizzle. As the Twinkie bobs through the oil, nearly bumping into a corn dog and a funnel cake swimming nearby, it puffs up as it crisps.
By the time the cook pulls it from its bath, dripping with grease, it's twice its original size. He slathers it with strawberry sauce and hands it though the window to an eager customer.
"They don't ask how many calories," Levengood says. "They just say, 'That's a heart attack in the making.'
"I say, 'Oh, I take all the calories out. I just fry it in greasy oil.'"
Levengood has never had a customer walk away. In fact, they line up.
Take Kristen Keenan and Angela Liberto of Perry Hall. They've got their fair routine mapped out. It starts out with corn dogs and ends with funnel cake, and the middle - that's left to whim and the gods of all things fried.
Not that they don't know better. Keenan's a nurse, and Liberto's a hygienist.
"It's like a splurge day," Keenan says somewhat sheepishly, corn dog in hand. "I know one day a year, I'm going to eat really, really bad, but it's going to be really, really good."
Kathleen M. Zelman, WebMD's director of nutrition, agrees that "one day of strapping on the feed bag isn't going to give you heart disease." But she says she worries that as more and more food outlets jump on the anti-trans fat bandwagon, people will be lulled into a false sense of security.
Bottom line, whether the funnel cake is fried in trans fat or something else, it's still fried and still not healthy.
"Fat is fat," she says. "Banning trans fat is a move in the right direction. But it certainly is no cure-all. And it doesn't mean that eating doughnuts from Dunkin' is recommended."
The Dukes family of Cockeysville knows all this. Still, there they were at the fair recently, with corn dogs and french fries.
John Dukes says he wasn't about to go up to vendors and start asking about the oil. But, his wife, Erin, thought that if one vendor used trans fat and one didn't, she would at least try the trans fat-free.
"Maybe if they had it posted," John Dukes says, then adds as he nibbles a fry. "Aw, it's just one night a year ... or, well, maybe a few more."