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Fair Food: From Spiral Fries to Corn Dogs

June 30, 1986|GORDON SMITH

DEL MAR — Walk right in, it's around the back

Just a half a mile from the railroad track;

You can get anything you want

At Alice's restaurant.

--"Alice's Restaurant"

by Arlo Guthrie

Like Alice's restaurant, the midway at the Del Mar Fair is about half a mile from the railroad tracks.

And, as at Alice's, you can get just about anything you want--anything to eat.

But even Alice might wonder about the wisdom of selling all this stuff at once: chocolate pancakes and corn dogs, strawberry shortcake and pepperoni pizza.

Virtually anything that once flew, swam, grew on a plant or spent the night in a barn can be bought and eaten this year at the fair. Chances are it will be served up fried, grilled or mounted on a stick.

Not everyone realizes that food is one of the fair's main attractions. Many people assume it's something fairgoers think about only when they're whizzing around on some mechanical ride and start to recall what they recently ate.

Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Robert Jackson. "People don't realize it, but a lot of them come here to eat. That's the God's-honest truth," he said.

"This is the biggest fair in California for food. It doesn't get too hot--the weather conditions are right for eating all day long."

Jackson, 39, is one of the many food vendors at the fair this year. Like most of the vendors he spends all summer on the road, towing his trailers-cum-food stands to county fairs throughout the state.

His specialty is corn--char-broiled corn. The ears of corn, still in the husk, are soaked in salt water, then heated over a gas-fired grill with volcanic rocks in it. After about 15 minutes the husk is slightly charred and the corn is ready to eat.

"It has more flavor and color than boiled corn," explained Jackson. "It's crisper, too. But you've got to start with fresh corn, not frozen. If it's not fresh, you lose the whole idea of the whole concept.

"We serve it with real butter, and also with hot sauce. It's not unusual for someone--even women--to eat more than one. One time I saw a big guy eat five."

Jackson, who lives on the shore of Lake Shasta in Northern California, is staying with friends in Solana Beach. This is only the second year he has taken part in the Del Mar Fair, but he is a veteran with 17 years' experience serving food at fairs.

"I used to do barbecue. I was the guy who stood in the window and carved the beef," he said. "But beef costs got so high, driving up the overhead. . . . I decided to switch over to corn.

"There was an original char-broiled corn guy on the fair circuit before me, but he cooked it with briquets. I got the idea from him, but with this grill there's less smoke. Now I'm the only one who serves corn this way.

"See, all of us (vendors) have a special item. What you need is a product common enough that people will try it, but different enough so they haven't had it that way."

Case in point: giant, one-pound baked potatoes, which Jackson also sells. "You cannot buy those potatoes in the store," he insisted. "You fix one up with chili or cheese and it's a meal ."

Or spiral fries, sold a short distance down the midway from Jackson's char-broiled corn stand. Eighteen-year-old Ken Kasinak explained that the fries are made from fresh potatoes skewered on a screw-like apparatus with a crank handle. As the crank is turned the potato is automatically carved into a thin spiral and then fried in hot oil.

"My Dad owns the place; I'm just the manager," Kasinak said during a free moment inside his small, sweltering trailer. "We live in Clairemont. My Dad's been selling food at fairs for seven or eight years, but this is only his second year with spiral fries. He started out with silver-dollar-sized doughnuts."

Two whole potatoes go into every order of spiral fries, forming a kind of nest of fried potatoes roughly six inches high and eight inches across. On a day when sales are brisk, Kasinak and his helpers go through 800 pounds of potatoes and enough cooking grease to float an oil tanker.

"Spiral fries aren't very well known out here, but back East they're as common as corn dogs," he noted. "It's kind of the same with silver-dollar-sized doughnuts. Hardly anybody in California knows about them, but in Minnesota they're all over the place."

One of the few completely new food stands at the fair this year is Alex Vauclair's Western Bar-B-Q. For some reason, fair officials have given him a spot far from the other food stands, near the barns that house swine and other livestock.

"The animals run out of the barns and jump right into my barbecuer," he joked.

In reality, Vauclair, a big, stocky man from Mesa, Ariz., doesn't find much humor in the location. However, he conceded that he needs a relatively large space for his barbecue oven, an enormous black cylinder that resembles an antique train engine.

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