The Indiana State Fair harbors a bonanza of options (and a nonstop source of amusement), and with that comes a litany of both must-munch and don't-dare food and drink products. Here, a grandstand-meets–Midway rundown of the best and worst (wurst?) for your palate at this event, an annual since 1862. All the offerings are not created equal. Fair enough? We think so.
+ Enter the grounds at Gate 12. The FFA Pavilion is to your right, with apple-cider and peach slushies just to the left. Plus, this means that you've parked at the Indianapolis School for the Deaf, which saves you 30 to 40 minutes, no joke, on vehicle entry and parking time. (See mini-rant below.)
+ Garner your lemon shake-ups at the booth across the walkway from from the bubble tea trailer (you read that right) between the Ball State–sponsored pavilion and the Midway where the assorted rides lurk. The lemon quotient is best at this stand; it simply tastes real, tart without being saccharine and rendering one's taste buds impotent. Plus, the girl behind the counter was the perkiest, brightest star in the lot on this night.
+ Chow down on Ben's pretzels, near that slushie stand across the walkway and south of the FFA Pavilion near Gate 12. True, this is not exactly a Fair staple. But these huge, fresh knots are unmatched, nullifying all the past $7 lukewarm ballpark pretenders—and, per the Fair's smart new $2 Tuesday deals, it's an utter steal. Butter covers over a multitude of sins, and the Land O'Lakes cheese dip informs you that these Ben's pretzel people aren't kidding. The young woman working the counter said that they'd made 900 pretzels in that one day, weathering a line of hungry fairgoers since 10 a.m. She said this at 8:30 p.m., with a dozen patrons waiting. That 10-minute wait was a tiny price to pay for the oversized deliciousness of a perfectly salted knot.
+ Take advantage of more $2 Tuesday specials. Every food and/or drink booth has one, whether it's 10 assorted-flavor pieces of State Fair taffy or scads and oodles of other items.
+ Consult our staffers' favorite food and drink items at the fair. We won't steer you wrong, as long as you're okay by foot-long corndogs and burgers inserted betwixt doughnuts.
+ Have at Brad Gates' specialty salad dressings, located at the small store tucked inside the Indiana Farm Bureau building. The man knows what he's doing, and he's doing it well.
+ Witness the cheese sculptures (pictured at right). They're offbeat and fun and just scream "State Fair, y'all!" You can't eat off of them, nor can you touch, but what you can do is witness their chatty maker (oddly equipped with a Madonna headset) as she crafts her custom cheese art. "I was born to do this," she enthused one afternoon.
- Enter the fairgrounds at Gate 1. Major mistake at my end—dreadful—though a parking pass dictated where I could park. The new credit-card parking payment system (and subsequent receipts) means long waits in lines of exhaust-spewing cars. Save your time and your breath.
- Whine about the fact that parking is being charged for the first time ($5 per vehicle), or that the Fair admission price has been hiked from $8 to $10. These gripes will get you nothing but a surly feeling before you even enter the grounds ... and then your tummy will respond with equal surliness later due to the stress. Trust me, we are not gastro-conditioned to take in all this Fair grub. (At least we shouldn't be.) You will likely suffer in ways. Don't let it be due to your attitude.
So, what did we miss? What's your own State Fair must-do or must-gorge?
>> BONUS: Hear us on B105.7 as we offer tips on what and where to get grubby at the State Fair.
Audio courtesy of B105.7 "Mornings with Sean Copeland"
Additional reporting by Kim Hannel and Julia Spalding.