Of the Big E's newest mega-calorie creations, few have raised more questions than the fried Kool-Aid. Namely, how do you deep-fry a liquid?
"You don't," said Paula Cushing-Pote of Wilmington, Mass.-based Marion's Fried Dough, laughing as she blended a large batch of flour, water, yeast and cherry Kool-Aid powder in an industrial mixer. The end result, a bright pink dough, rises for 10 to 15 minutes before being cut into round shapes and fried briefly in boiling oil, then dusted with sugar and a light shower of Kool-Aid powder.
The taste? Just imagine a freshly fried doughnut hole with a tart burst of cherry. And if you grew up drinking Kool-Aid, it'll evoke memories of playing outside on a hot summer day.
Cushing-Pote went through several test recipes at home before coming up with the winning formula, she said, eschewing a funnel-cake type batter for the smoother dough.
"I want people to be able to come back for them. I don't want them to walk [away] and dump them — I want them to like it," she said.
At New England's biggest fair, which attracted 1.2 million visitors in 2010, organizers and vendors hope guests will ditch their diets and strap on the feedbag. New and increasingly outrageous items join the lineup each year, and this season's novel indulgences also include deep-fried whoopie pies, fried brownie bits and red velvet funnel cake.
Fried Kool-Aid went viral online in June after its inventor posted a video of the confection on
, quickly becoming a trending Twitter topic and catching the attention of fairs across the country. Drawing upon Marion's 21 years of fried-food expertise, Big E management asked them to concoct it for the 2011 offerings.
Cushing-Pote and her business partner Darrin Cushing, who are amicably divorced, are celebrating their 20th season at the Big E. After doing modest sales in the Better Living Center, Marion's got a big break last year. Big E organizers tasked them with creating two of 2010's most buzzworthy foods — fried butter balls and fried jelly beans.
With a new booth, situated in a highly visible spot by Gate 9A, business was "phenomenal," Cushing-Pote said, adding that she went through 10 cases of jelly beans.
No Plain Hot Dogs Here
At Captain Nemo's Galley near the Avenue of States, they're serving another signature food for 2011: the Hot Diggid-E Dog, a cheddar-cheese infused, bacon-wrapped hot dog with barbecue sauce, spicy coleslaw and chopped jalapeno peppers. The vendors asked for
fans' help in naming the dog: a Shelton resident, Heather Liebensohn, submitted the winning entry.
It's the first year Captain Nemo's will offer specialty hot dogs, said proprietor Garett DiStefano, whose family has run the stand for more than 35 years. "I think a lot of people are going to be interested," he said. "We're set up to produce 300 to 400 of them an hour if we have to." They'll also make a "New England" hot dog with cheddar cheese and baked beans.
For the first time in the fair's history, organizers also issued a culinary challenge to vendors, asking them to cook up unusual items made with corn. They responded with deep-fried corn kernels (served with sugar or maple syrup); tutti-frutti flavored popcorn; a corn muffin with pulled pork, coleslaw and barbecue sauce and "country-fried shepherd's pie": hamburger, mashed potatoes and corn rolled into a ball, coated in panko crumbs and deep-fried.
Though some of the cuisine at the 17-day event could be considered a dietitian's nightmare, it's the fleeting, once-a-year nature of the treats that attract fairgoers, said Sue Lavoie, vice president of the Eastern States Exposition.
"Would you sit down once a week and have a hamburger on a doughnut with bacon and cheese? No," she said, referencing 2009's big seller, the Craz-E Burger, which is back for a third consecutive year. "But when you come here, it's a little different."
The Frying's The Limit
Inspiration for each year's crop of new delicacies comes from a number of sources, Lavoie said, with choices influenced by larger events like the Texas State Fair, food trends and concessionaires' creativity.
"People, within the last several years are very, very interested in different foods. I think it's a movement. They read about these other food concoctions, and they want to try them," Lavoie said. "…Texas has been a leader [in new ideas]."
And sometimes ideas strike when they're least expected, like the one that led to the Hot Diggid-E Dog. While traveling in South Carolina, Lavoie stopped by a hot dog stand, tried one with spicy coleslaw and decided to bring that concept back to West Springfield.
Once the fair ends on Oct. 2, planning starts for 2012, with an international conference in late fall. The vendor challenge will return, Lavoie said, with apple as the potential main ingredient. And they'll continue to keep an eye on what the bigger fairs are churning out.
Deep-fried butter on a stick and fried bubble gum made headlines this year in Iowa and Texas, respectively. Just saying.
The Big E runs today through Oct. 2 at the Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds, 1305 Memorial Ave., in West Springfield, Mass. Gates are open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. For information, tickets, directions and a full schedule of events, visit thebige.com.