By Jay Cridlin, Times Staff Writer
Pity those humorless souls who deride state fairs as carnivals for the overweight and undercultured, the simple and the soft. • Weep for them, for they will never know the exquisite joys of chocolate-dipped bacon. • Yes, the Florida State Fair returned to Tampa on Thursday, and with it came a new slate of exotic food fare on sticks, in bags and deep-fried. Here are three of this year's best. — Jay Cridlin firstname.lastname@example.org
If, for some strange reason, the thought of pig meat slathered in fudge doesn't give your stomach a tingle, then get with the times, man. In January, Time wrote about the proliferation of bacony delights on dessert menus in fine restaurants nationwide. Bacon ice cream has even popped up on Top Chef. Mark Boggs of Plant City saw chocolate-dipped bacon at another fair up north and tinkered in the kitchen with some recipes. He decided that freshly grilled Hormel applewood-smoked bacon worked best; for $5, you get four slabs with a cup of syrupy chocolate dipping sauce. Don't let the concept scare you — there is no meaty aftertaste, only a salty-meets-sweet flavor delivered via the peerless crisp-yet-chewy texture of bacon. Find it at Mavric's Chocolate Barn near Gate 2.
Deep-fried green beans
Another big-city export, deep-fried green beans come to the Florida State Fair thanks to Bill Lauther of Brandon, who encountered them on a menu in New York. His mind started clicking, and as soon as he returned home, he bought a bag of frozen green beans from Wal-Mart and started experimenting. His stand, Griff's Catering, already sold fried cauliflower, fried broccoli and fried pickle slices, but he decided that with a little ranch dressing, the beans ($5 per basket) are just as good. "The thing is getting people to try 'em," Lauther said. "They taste like French fries to me." Indeed they do — warm, crisp, unmistakably Southern and, while not exactly health food, certainly better for you than a deep-fried Twinkie. Griff's Catering is along the lake, near Kiddie Land.
Florida State Fair
The 2009 fair runs through Feb. 16 at the Florida State Fairgrounds, Interstate 4 and U.S. 301, Tampa. Gates open at 9 a.m. daily; closing time varies. Among this year's highlights: A live shark encounter in a 9,000-gallon tank; Jack Russell terrier races on Sunday; and a We the Kings concert on Feb. 16. Monday through Friday, admission is $10 for ages 12 and older, $5 ages 6 to 11. Saturday and Sunday, admission is $12 for 12 and older, $6 for ages 6 to 11. Five and younger free all days. Parking is free. For discounts, a complete schedule and more, see floridastatefair.com.