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Green, but Not Exactly Health Food

Deep-fried avocados stuffed with carne asada and cheese are the newest food craze at the Orange County Fair.

July 14, 2005|Lomi Kriel | Times Staff Writer

When Bill Birkhead first tried to concoct a new avocado treat to serve at the Orange County Fair, it didn't go so well.

First, he tried sticking some guacamole on a stick. "We had to go back to the drawing board with that one," he said, laughing.

Then, he molded two avocado halves into a whole and fried the whole thing. Another failure.

The pressure was on. After all, the avocado is the theme of this year's fair that runs though July 31, and Birkhead manages Baja Blues, a year-round restaurant located at the fairgrounds.

Finally, he hit the jackpot. He took half an avocado, stuffed it with carne asada and cheese, dipped it in a thin batter, and deep-fried the whole concoction.

"We thought we'd sell 20, tops," he said, adding that by Wednesday his restaurant had sold more than 900 of the avocado delicacies. "It's been phenomenal."

For Riverside resident Connie Vinlene, 54, it was a hit. "It's awesome," she said Wednesday. Of all the fried goodies at the fair, "it's my favorite. For today anyway."

But the idea of frying avocados horrifies such nutritionists as Susan Bowerman. "It's appalling."

"To deep fry something that is so delicious on its own and so healthy," said Bowerman, assistant director of UCLA's Center for Human Nutrition, "it's kind of gilding the lily."

At one time, some people avoided avocados because of their high fat content. But nutritionists now say avocados can help lower cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease, mainly because the fat they contain is monounsaturated, or a "good" fat.

Many experts suggest not eating avocados in excess and certainly aren't keen on deep-frying them. "If you're deep-frying it, you're upsetting the balance of the healthy fats for one thing. Not to mention boosting the calories," said Bowerman.

It's not a treat for dieters.

"The calories? It's high. I'm not even going to go there," Birkhead said. "Let me put it this way. When you put batter on something and deep fry it, anything is going to be high in fat."

But that didn't phase San Clemente resident Deanna Venegas. It was one of the first things she and her friends tried at the fair -- that is, right after they feasted on a breakfast of fried Oreos.

"It's just the fair atmosphere, you eat that kind of stuff," said Venegas, 22. And declaring the fried avocados too healthy, she and her friends said the problem was they just weren't fried enough.

"We went right past the salads and the healthy stuff and went to the fried foods and the beer," said her friend Stephanie Katin, 23, of Yucaipa.

But Venegas and her friends say they don't come to the fair to count calories. It's a time to indulge, to let loose, they said.

And that attitude may be why fairs have been the breeding grounds for such bizarre creations as fried Oreos and fried Twinkies.

"It's a time when it's fun to try new things," said Becky Bailey-Findley, CEO of the Orange County Fair.

Because fairs only come around once a year, people don't feel guilty if they gobble down fried-anything, said Gary Goodman, chairman of the International Assn. of Fairs and Expositions, a trade organization for fairs around the world.

A fair, he said, is a "moratorium on low-fat, low-cal. It gives people a chance to do something they don't do every time of the year."

For a while, though, fairs feared they would see their demise if they didn't catch on to the low-carb, low-fat craze sweeping America. Some vendors started selling salads and steamed vegetables.

"Now many of those folks have gone out of business," Goodman said. "You don't find them very often."

Going to the fair is an escape for many people, a time when they don't have to feel guilty, he said.

And, of course, there's the long-time carnival saying: "If you fry it, they'll buy it."

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