Maryland State Fair: Food beyond the Midway

The sweet, the deep-fried, the local — you'll find it all at the fair

August 30, 2011|By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

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?

Deep-fried goodness

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.

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