Dining With Denise Neil

Weird, deep-fried food is a state fair requirement: These are the people who invent it

Her first goal is to make people stop, stare and scratch their heads in confusion.

Her second goal is to make the little ones declare their disgust.

If she’s done that — and if she’s racked up her usual sales numbers at the end of each Kansas State Fair — Susan Bernard knows it’s been a good year.

Bernard is among a few longtime food vendors at the Kansas State Fair whose yearly mission is to come up with the event’s next edible “talker” — that weird, “oh-no-they-didn’t” delicacy that gets people buzzing, and then gets them eating.

Whether the customers who buy those crazy dishes have come for bragging rights and an Instagram photo or out of a genuine desire to eat something strange, Bernard doesn’t much care.

As long as they come.

“When you walk by a stand, you should walk by and go, ‘Hey did you see that back there?’” said Bernard, who this year is selling deep fried deviled eggs and Moon Pie burgers. “And then you want the kids to go, ‘Ewwwww gross!’”

State fairs across the country are known as places to get corn dogs, ice cream cones and all manner of state-appropriate comfort food. But over the years, fair vendors have been turning it up and competing to create the next crazy, deep-fried stunt dish. Indiana has its hot beef sundae. California has its grilled python kebabs. Arizona has its deep-fried scorpions. South Carolina is frying Pepsi.

Vendors in Kansas are always trying to top their neighboring states, and some report that they spend hours surfing the web, brainstorming with their staff members and testing ideas in their kitchens to come up with the next year’s big deal.

Bernard, whose resume includes the “bickle” (battered and deep-fried bacon-wrapped pickles), grew up at the Kansas State Fair. Her parents — Tollette and Sam Bernard — started operating a booth on Ft. Riley Boulevard 49 years ago, and now she, her son and her brothers have two fair food businesses — Bernard’s Pit Stop Bar-B-Q at Cottonwood Court and Kathy B’s BBQ & Bacon at 313 Fort Riley Blvd.

The fair’s former director of commercial exhibits, Sue Stoecklein, would encourage her every year to come up with something new, Bernard said, and she’d start thinking and thinking. Her main goal was to come up with something new and to “not get it off the Food Network.”

This year, in addition to her deep fried deviled eggs and Moon Pie burgers, Bernard is also selling pickles marinated with sour candy inside and french fries topped with “Shuttle Sauce,” a concoction of marshmallow fluff, Pepperjack cheese and mayonnaise.”

People actually order the crazy food items that Carousel Cafe on Ft. Riley Boulevard come up with every year, said owner Michelle Starks, whose business offers a whole lineup of weirdness, from Krispy Kreme burgers to Funnel Cake burgers to Fried Mac and Cheese Burgers.

Their new offering this year is a Carousel Sundae, which is topped with a Krispy Kreme doughnut, sprinkles and a piece of chocolate-covered bacon.

Starks, who has been a food vendor at the fair for 15 years, said she and her husband spend their downtime dreaming up the next year’s crazy offering. One of their proudest achievements, she said, is the mac and cheese burger. Initially, they thought about topping a burger with mac and cheese. But that wasn’t crazy enough, they decided.

“We needed to do something little more unique for the Kansas State Fair, so we made it into a bun,” she said.

“It” was the mac and cheese, and Starks’ husband, Robert Base, invented a tube using PVC pipe, which he stuffs mac and cheese into, freezes it then slices into patties that will be fried and turned into buns. The burger is still on the menu and one of the cafe’s big sellers.

No matter how crazy the dishes are, Starks said, people buy them. They taste good, she said, but consuming one comes with bragging rights.

“People come in to eat those and they have families and they’ll get a Mack Attack Burger, a Krispy Kreme Burger and a Funnel Cake Burger and they’ll split it,” she said.

Kansas State Fair

When: Through Sunday

Where: Kansas State Fairgrounds, 2000 N. Poplar, Hutchinson

Admission: Tickets at the gate are $10 adults, $6 seniors and children ages 6-12, free for 5 and under

Information and lineup: https://www.kansasstatefair.com/

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