Tilly: In defense of food on a stick

BY ZACH TILLY | JULY 25, 2013 5:00 AM

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Last month, I felt myself slipping into a spiral of addiction. Thirty or 40 times a day, my brain would project a picture of a glistening pile of French fries onto the front wall of my skull and whisper, “I need my medicine, Zach.”

Most of my vices are deep-fried, my dealers you know well. Wendy, Ronald, the King, Popeye. Anyway, it got to the point that I had to get off the junk for a while.

I’m only a few weeks into my rehab — I miss fried chicken most of all— but I can feel the late summer already testing my resolve. In a few weeks, one of the world’s foremost orgies of deep-fried treats is coming again to Des Moines.

It’s almost time for the State Fair, which means it’s almost time for fried stuff on a stick. Personally, I’m excited for the spectacle if nothing else.

Not everybody shares that excitement. In fact, there is an undue nastiness among many who discuss the food at the Iowa State Fair, as though fair food is singularly responsible for the rapid plumpening of the country’s population. Perish the thought. You don’t get fat by eating a foot-long chocolate-dipped pulled-pork-corn-dog sandwich once every August. You get fat when you start jonesing for Chicken McNuggets at 9:30 a.m. like me.

Still, the food-scolds roll their eyes at state fairs.

Back in 2011, when Michele Bachmann and the Pips showed up in Iowa, the eyes of the nation’s media elites narrowed into self-righteous slits at the sight of a deep-fried stick of butter. With all the levity of an iceberg wedge (balsamic on the side), they wrote about the gluttony and depravity of our food.

“The Iowa State Fair has hit a new gluttonous low,” one Huffington Post article began. “Just when you thought that there was nothing left to fry, a vendor at the fair has cooked up something new: a fried stick of butter.”

This perspective is self-congratulatory and deeply flawed. The fair-food culture is born not of gluttony but of a spirit of invention and one-upmanship. It’s a constant quest to shock and to do more with a limited set of resources. Look at the new stuff this year.

There are many new variations on the funnel cake, including one featuring maple syrup and bacon. There are many new takes on the corn dog, too, including a shrimp-based corn-dog facsimile slathered in jalapeño goo. Somebody decided fried bull testicles might be something people would like to try.

Somebody figured out how to put an entire barbecue meal — meat, beans, sauce, slaw, and chips — in a waffle cone.

Watching this flabby arms race is like watching Andy Kaufman wrestle women or dress up as Tony Clifton and push a crowd to its breaking point. It’s kind of appalling, offensive, but fun because you’re in on the gag. It’s a wink-wink kind of thing, and the joke’s always on the people who get offended.

Those who aren’t in on it simply bemoan the crassness of our fair culture. They like to laugh at the yokels cooking this stuff up from the more enlightened confines of the flaxseed aisle at Trader Joe’s. They laugh because they think they’re the only ones with a fully formed sense of irony.

I’ve got a family full of greasy-spoon owners, and I can tell you that the defining dynamic of developing showy, borderline offensive foods is a desire to go bigger and to surprise. My grandma once won an award for developing a pie that tastes like a banana split — she wanted to do something the judges had never seen before. In this sense, fair food is closer in spirit to a summertime blockbuster than another trip to McDonald’s.

I’m not saying that everybody sucking down double-fried Twinkies at the fair is ironically meta-eating garbage, not even close. But I am saying that nobody could develop a barbecue ice-cream cone without a sense of humor and a twisted kind of genius.

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