Corn dog, funnel cake revolution underway at Georgia fairs

How do you make a calzone more over the top?

Brian and Sue Gillette do whatever they can to get attention amid the flurry of colorful signs and bright lights on fairground midways this time of year. Often that means hawking food creations designed to get a double take from passing fairgoers.

At the North Georgia State Fair in Marietta, Gillette’s Pizza and Lemonade boasts that it is the “home of the big pepperoni” — as in, round slices four inches in diameter.

But the North Carolina-based couple, their eldest daughter and her boyfriend know that’s not enough.

“People want to try something unique at the fair,” Brian Gillette said. “You can get pizza anywhere, so we have to take it to the next level.” Like dill pickle pizza. And a calzone stuffed with macaroni and cheese, plus bacon.

But just how far is too far? They brainstorm ever wilder food ideas while caravaning to the next gig in their 14-fair season. What, they wondered, would surprise and entice fairgoers who have seen it all?

They aren’t alone.

A food arms race has been underway at fairs throughout the nation in recent years and, if anything, it looks like it is heating up among the purveyors of corn dogs, fried Oreos, caramel apples, cotton candy, Dippin’ Dots, funnel cakes and pork chops on sticks.

The giant Georgia National Fair (Oct. 6-16) is launching its first Fair Food Fight in Perry for its expected half a million attendees.

Other fairs have had their own versions of such contests.

Grease and sugar have long been the culinary foundations of fairgrounds. But even grocery stores now sell cotton candy in plastic bags and boxes of corn dogs, including a brand called State Fair, marked with a blue ribbon, no less.

Just before this year’s opening of the North Georgia State Fair in Marietta, which runs through Sunday, a dozen or so fair food vendors clustered inside an exhibit hall. Every so often, each of them stole glances at a semi-sequestered panel of judges in the fair’s crazy fair food contest.

The panel navigated deep fried mac and cheese balls, deep fried cinnamon buns, frozen pickled lemonade and a host of other dishes.

“That’s really yummy,” a judge recruited from a local radio station said after one bite.

“No way this isn’t great,” a judge said after hearing the ingredients of another entry.

“So many ways to clog your arteries,” a fair official whispered.

Jalin Williams was surprised at how jittery he was watching the judges try his combo grilled cheese and pizza. He and his fiancée started a cheese-themed stand less than a year ago. The North Georgia State Fair was their first big event.

He had wanted to be a pilot. Fiancée Sidney Hitt is working on a finance degree. But their long-term plans have morphed. They want to grow their small stand into a career. “Hopefully, we’ll have a trailer next year,” Williams said.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Sonny Fowler, a restaurant industry veteran and owner of the East Cobb franchise location of Scoville Hot Chicken, got the inspiration for his contest entry from the smorgasbord of menu items a hungry colleague mashed together for an impromptu meal. As a joke, Fowler added a waffle, syrup and powdered sugar to the mix of chicken, pickles, coleslaw and comeback sauce. “I’m not sure it should all work together,” he said. But he tried it and liked the taste, and it sells well at a food truck he takes to events. He said he’d be proud to win the contest.

Years ago, he had a local cafe. His menu choices then were more constrained than what he can do at fairs, where “spicy, sweet, big and messy” is a sellable combination.

“Fair food is gratuitous,” he said. “There’s no reason to eat a fried Snickers bar. But, dadgummit, why not?”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

How many new ways are there to doll up a corn dog? Charles Hanson has been working on that puzzle in recent years. For his latest entry at the North Georgia State Fair, he rolled a corn dog in honey, then crunched up potato chips, then added Tajin seasoning for some kick.

He confounded friends and family some 50 years ago when he left a good-paying insurance company job to sell fairground cotton candy.

Having grown up visiting a circus that spent winters in a Macon park, he fell for the magic of the industry. The travel to a new town. The adventure. The excitement of visitors. “For the few hours they are out here, they are in a fantasy world, and they have forgotten about their own personal woes and troubles,” he said.

He’s seen some fair vendors try to sell garden salads in years past. Didn’t work out so well, Hanson said. He could have told them: He used to offer sugar-free syrup on snow cones. It didn’t get much interest.

What does well? “Something on a stick. Something fried and tasty and on a stick. You can’t go wrong.”

Fairs are building back again after getting walloped in the early days of the pandemic. The vast majority of members of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions didn’t open for the 2020 season. Since then, when the weather has been good, attendance has been trending upward, said association president Marla Calico. Spending per attendee is up this year compared to last year or 2019.

And the food fights are well underway, said Calico. She’s seen hamburger patties nestled between two donuts, deep fried deviled eggs and deep fried Kool-Aid, made with a sort of flavored funnel cake batter. Edible insects were a thing among food vendors just before the pandemic. And one year she had a roast beef sundae, which was meat, mashed potato and gravy with a cherry on top. “It messes with your head, but it tastes great.”

The real prize at the North Georgia State Fair wasn’t just the $500 check for best taste or most creative. It came with bragging rights, a bit of publicity and a way to stand out.

“Oh, it was a tough decision this year,” a judge said in announcing the winners.

Fowler won the most creative category with his hot chicken waffle taco.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Gillette won best taste with his wife’s Dorito Taco Pizza, $7 a slice. He’s entering some iteration of that pizza in the competition at the upcoming Georgia National Fair.

Gillette’s friends from high school ask, “Are you still doing that thing at fairs?” Nearly three decades of his life have been making pizzas on the fair circuit.

“I’m proud of that,” he said, even if it’s not the barbecue restaurant he once dreamed of when he was back North.

Even at 52, he can’t rest on his laurels. The family is contemplating what it will make for contests next year. One option they’re been batting around: a pizza with flavors like a Chick-fil-A sandwich.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Some fairs around Georgia:

Georgia State Fair in Hampton. Sept. 30-Oct. 9.

Cumming Country Fair in Forsyth County. Oct. 6-16.

Georgia Mountain Fall Festival in Hiawassee. Oct. 7-15

Georgia National Fair in Perry. Oct. 6-16

Elberton 12-County Fair in Elberton. Oct. 13-23

Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair in Statesboro. Oct. 17-22

Dublin Fall Fair. Oct. 26-29

Columbia County Fair in Grovetown. Nov. 3-13