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Grip and Grin

Food on a stick has evolved from corn dogs to cheesecake to pizza, helping hungry folks get a handle on fair treats.

July 08, 1999|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The veterans will be easy to spot Friday when the 107th Orange County Fair opens in Costa Mesa.

Sunscreen-slathered, fanny-packed and otherwise geared for the marathon day ahead, they'll be the supremely confident ones climbing out of minivans and SUVs parked in the coveted quick-getaway spots near an exit.

Most important, their hands will be free, making them "fare game" for some 75 food vendors hungrily soliciting them down aisle after midway aisle:

"Corn dogs! Get your corn dogs here!"

It's all there, and practically all of it on a handle. If you have an aversion to junk food, you're probably out of luck with a meal on a stick.

If not, a few bucks and at least one empty hand can get you a fistful of food of the not-so-culinary, carny kind: snow cones, ice-cream cones, hot dogs, candy apples, frozen bananas, roasted corn on the cob, enormous dill pickles, powdered funnel cakes, shish kebabs and beehives of pink cotton candy.

And that's just the normal stuff.

"In the festival business, we're always looking for fun food that's easy to hold," said Tony Fiori, marketing director for RCS Carnivals, which provides many of the rides, games and food-service units to the Orange County Fair and others nationwide and serving 5 to 7 million fairgoers a year.

"It got popular because of the uniqueness," he said. "They'll put anything on a stick."

Indeed, with the venerable corn dog as the model, vendors have gone on to jam sticks through eggrolls, steak, cheese, teriyaki chicken, fresh pineapple--even cheesecake and pizza.

You begin to think there's a lonely researcher stuck in a lab somewhere, knee deep in little wooden sticks, trying to discover even more exotic food items capable of being impaled and desperately muttering: "Spaghetti? Jell-O? Soup? There's got to be a way!"

Said Fiori: "The best way to [find out] is to put it on a stick and see if it sells," adding that he couldn't think of any food-on-a-stick attempts that have flopped, though you get the idea that even if he could, he wouldn't talk.

"Basically, the laboratories are our trailers. Individual owners go in their wagons and try to come up with new things all the time," he says. "It's business."

That business began almost a century ago, probably with the cotton candy invented by William J. Morrison and John Wharton, who patented an "electric candy machine" in time for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.

Ice-cream cones also had their coming-out party at that event, after French-American ice-cream vendor Arnold Fornachou ran out of paper ice-cream cups and fashioned one of Syrian baker Ernest Hamwi's waffles into a cone to house the frozen dessert.

Others contend food on a stick truly came into its own with the corn dog.

It was said to be invented in 1942 by vaudevillians Neil and Carl Fletcher, who first served the cornmeal-battered, deep-fried hot dogs at the Texas State Fair.

Even this event is under dispute, however, for the Louisiana State Fair also takes credit for the corn dog's debut several years later at its state fair in 1948. And stick-food vendors embody the American melting-pot ideal as well as anyone. The eggroll on a stick, Fiori said, crediting carnival folklore, was born when a Chinese-food vendor next to a corn-dog cart stabbed an egg roll to see if it would sell.

This year will bring another ingenious addition to the stick-food repertoire: Frozen cotton candy will be introduced by Sipper Products, said Tommie Fomby, director of concessions and commercial exhibitors for the Orange County Fair.

Of all the "grab joints" at the fair in recent years, Fiori said the one offering pizza on a stick stands out.

"Pizza on a stick is a great one. I mean, have you ever seen it? It's just bread on a stick, dipped in pizza sauce and cheese, with these pieces of pepperoni," Fiori said.

"It's fun. It's a novelty. What could be more fair-like than pizza put on a stick?"

BE THERE

Orange County Fair, Orange County Fair & Exhibition Center, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. "Join the Rush," a salute to gold and grain, is the theme of the 107th annual fair, which includes midway rides and games, livestock, continuous entertainment of all kinds, home arts and crafts exhibits, food booths, product displays, an invention show, rodeo, and more, daily through July 25. Headline entertainment in Arlington Theatre at 7 and 9 p.m. Fair hours are noon-midnight Monday-Wednesday; 10 a.m.-midnight Thursday-Sunday. $2-$6. Parking is $2-$4. (714) 708-3247.

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