For 17 days, the 2012 Big E in West Springfield will dish up all sorts of family entertainment when New England's largest fair opens Friday, Sept. 14. In addition to an emphasis on the region's agricultural industry, the festival will offer live music and comedy, parades, a circus and, of course, lots of food.
The thousands of fair-goers who make the annual jaunt to the Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds do bring their appetites. The Big E doesn't disappoint, serving up a seemingly endless smorgasbord of safe, familiar and quirky foods.
"Food makes everybody happy," says Rosie Okinsky, owner of the New Britain-based Rosie's Chocolates and creator of such delicacies as chocolate-covered bacon, dill pickles and jalapenos. "It tickles the soul."
The array of foods at the annual festival is legendary, but let's get one thing out of the way first. A fair like the Big E is no place to count calories or worry about cholesterol counts, although vendors make concessions with offerings such as fresh salads, veggie-stuffed baked potatoes and smoothies.
The true favorites begin with the culinary "F" word — fried. If frying is good, then deep frying is better, and no one argues that fat makes foods taste more delicious. Fried applies to the fair's newest taste sensation, fried lasagna, as well as returning favorites such as Samoas (deep-fried), butter, Kool-Aid, Whoopie Pies and Twinkies, peanut butter and banana sandwich, cheese curds and Shepherd's Pie.
Also returning are two classics: the Big E Cream Puff, which will be served in the New England Center and the Food Court, and the Big E Craz-E-Burger, a bacon cheeseburger sandwiched in a grilled glazed doughnut. The burger will be sold in the Big EZ Café on New England Avenue.
In the Connecticut Building, where the emphasis is on the state's agriculture industry, snacks play an important role in introducing fair-goers to local food and beverage producers. Among the vendors will be Randy's Wooster Street Pizza with shops in Storrs, Southington and Manchester; Kathie's SuperSeedz's flavored pumpkin seeds; Smokehouse Grill in South Windsor; Connecticut Mountain Brew Soda; PEZ Candy, and Rita's Italian Ice of Rocky Hill.
Okinsky of Rosie's Chocolates will bring bacon, Slim Jims, dill pickles, jalapenos and Twinkies — all covered in chocolate — but will unveil her chocolate covered bacon. "The chocolate-covered bacon is our superstar," says Okinsky who returns to the Connecticut Building for the fifth year, "although our chocolate-covered pickles and jalapenos do well, too. People who love pickles eat one and come back and buy another one."
The chocolatier says she felt the need to offer an unusual item when customers told her that her dried fruit and nuts selection, which account for a large part of her regular sales, was too "healthy." She decided to do chocolate covered applewood-smoked bacon "out of frustration," she says.. "We introduced it that first year on Connecticut Day. I realized that the Big E has a lot to do with crazy foods. I want to please the public and keep customers happy, so I always try to do something unique."
John D'Arcangelo, owner of J. Foster ice cream shops in Simsbury and Avon, uses bacon in a different way at the Big E. His maple bacon ice cream stands out as one of the more unusual flavors in his scooping freezer.
D'Arcangelo, a member of the farm-to-chef program through the state Department of Agriculture, buys bacon from Eagle Wood Farms in Barkhamsted and maple syrup from Sweet Wind Farm in East Hartland. The inspiration for the blending of sweet and smoky flavors reverts to D'Arcangelo's childhood.
"As a kid, I always liked to dip my bacon in maple syrup," he says. The ice cream "was a big hit last year, so we decided to keep it on the menu. If you get past the mental aspect of bacon in your ice cream, it's very nice."
J. Foster's pumpkin pie ice cream, a seasonal treat, will be among the flavor choices that include best-selling graham central station and sweet cashew caramel as well as sugar-free and dairy free frozen treats.
The Big E also will celebrate the 250th birthday of the sandwich with 250 varieties. The fair's run isn't long enough to sample them all, but fair-goers will find classic combinations, grinders, hot dogs, burgers and lobster rolls, unusual offerings such as bison, elk and wild boar burgers, and ethnic takes on the hand-held food like tacos, burritos, gyros and waffle burgers.