The secret to a great piece of fried dough is in the stretching.
Before the popular fair treat is cooked in sizzling hot oil, coated in powdered sugar and handed to a hungry customer, the dough has to be pulled and prodded into just the right size and thickness so it will be chewy, not crispy.
At the Glenelg High School band program's fried-dough stand at the Howard County Fair, "all those skills are passed down from one band generation to another," said Stacey Kight, a Glenelg senior. She said she learned from an upperclassman drummer who was "the best stretcher ever. It was a privilege to work with him."
The Glenelg band program -- which includes the color guard and flag corps, called silks -- has returned to the fair this year to carry on a decades-long fried-dough tradition. In the small wooden stand next door, the Glenelg booster club will also be raising money at its long-standing french-fry booth.
They will be among 15 food vendors at the fair, offering a range of items from cotton candy and ice cream to barbecue and pit-beef meals. As many as 90,000 visitors are expected to turn out through Saturday as the fair celebrates its 60th anniversary at the fairgrounds in West Friendship.
Current band and booster club members cannot remember how long the stands have been operating, but they estimate it has been 20 to 25 years.
Organizers are tight-lipped about how much money the stands bring in. The booster club, which sells fries in freshman, sophomore, junior and senior sizes for $1.50 to $5.50, puts its proceeds into a general fund to support athletic teams and school groups.
Band members, who sell fried dough for $3.50, are credited for the time they work against the cost of trips to national competitions.
The stands are not the largest fundraisers for either group, but they are popular for their social elements.
"There is a really strong sense of community" among the workers, Kight said.
She said it is a great way for new band members to meet older ones. She recalled that when she was a freshman, "I walked in [to school] the first day, and I was absolutely petrified, but I knew people from the fried-dough stand."
Workers also see lots of familiar faces lining up at the windows to buy the food.
"Our friends and family members come out and support us," said Michelle Lacey, a Glenelg senior and flutist in the band.
Alumni -- some with their children in tow -- also come back, get some fried treats and reminisce about their days standing over vats of hot oil.
The preparation starts at least a week ahead of time. Both clubs truck their stands -- which are stored in pieces -- to the fairgrounds and construct them.
Volunteers install electrical outlets, sinks, deep fryers and -- thanks to the often sweltering temperatures in early August -- many fans. Health Department inspections must be passed before the stands can open.
Band members sign up to work between eight and 24 hours that include setup, cleanup and the fair's nine days, said Lucia Articola, a Woodbine parent who oversees the fried-dough stand. Parents also take shifts, usually handling the money.
At the fries stand, parents, sports coaches and administrators slice about 5,000 pounds of potatoes over eight days, blanch them and deep-fry them in peanut oil along with running the cash register.
Students chip in taking orders, sterilizing cooking tools and cleaning.
"It takes a small army of people," said Joel Isaacs, president of the booster club. About 240 volunteers will cover shifts before the fair is done.
Kathy Bowring, a booster club member from Mount Airy who oversees staffing, said she does not have trouble getting parents involved.
"I get the same ones year after year until their kids graduate because they have such a good time those four hours that they work," Bowring said. "I guess you don't feel like you're working when you're there and constantly see people ... that you've known for years and years."
The band members "like making the money, and they enjoy seeing all their friends," said Articola. "It's also a good way ... to learn a little bit about capitalism."
And, Kight said with a laugh, "Nothing beats walking out of the stand smelling like fried dough."
The fair, off Route 144 in West Friendship, is open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for those ages 62 and older and free for children younger than 10. Parking is free. Information: 410-442-1022, or www.howardcountyfair.com.