Reporter's notebook: Healthy sanctuary found at a carnival of meat

In the land of bacon-wrapped this and barbecued-smothered that, it can be hard to find anything healthy at the Orange County Fair.

Especially if you're a vegetarian.

Animal-derived delights are everywhere you look, from the oversized turkey legs to the Krispy Kreme sloppy joe. There are, however, a few hidden gems at the fair for those living meatless in a meat-filled world — and they were not slathered in batter, deep-fried or sugar-filled.

As an experiment, my omnivorous colleague Jill Cowan and I (a sometimes fish-eating, oftentimes vegetarian) sought out such meat-free offerings.

Of course, you can avoid meat by eating some of the deep-fried concoctions, but I wanted to sample a large cross section of food, ranging from fresh produce and low-calorie options to the more-indulgent fare.

Among the fresher options were the mixed fruit bowl at Terri's Berries stand, where owner Terri Crutchfield serves up bowls filled with cherries, blackberries, raspberries, grapes and strawberries.

Her fruit predominantly hails from the Golden State, but it all depends, Crutchfield said.

"Wherever the best stuff is coming from," she added.

The berries were some of the most consistently ripe, sweet fruit I've had. They certainly merited the $6.75 price tag.

"I know my produce," Crutchfield said proudly.

Jill bought a $6 peach smoothie, which consisted of a mix of peaches, apricots and pears, and a vanilla protein mix, filled with fresh stone fruit — "always a plus in the summer," in Jill's words.

Steps away from Terri's was the Spud Shack, where baked sweet potatoes dazzle fairgoers.

Bob Jackson owns the Shack, along with the charbroiled corn and a corn/veggie kebab stands.

Each of them serve gluten-free options, said employee Jessica Thompson.

Apparently, Jill and I weren't the only people searching for what Jackson called "alternative foods."

"Usually when they come up, they're like, 'Oh my God! We've been looking for you all day'," Thompson said.

Last Friday, she had one customer who visited the shack three or four times because it sold the only food she could eat.

"We're one of the healthier choices here," she said.

We bought the $6 sweet potato and topped it with walnuts and brown sugar for an extra $2. The sweet potato was large enough to require a two-hand hold and could have easily fed a family of four. A $6 veggie kebab from one of Jackson's neighboring stands came with roasted corn, onion, tomato and bell pepper slices.

"When you get tired of the junk, come back to reality," Jackson said of his culinary choices.

An obligatory visit to Chicken Charlie's was in order for one indulgence: a mix of fried asparagus, mushrooms and zucchini, which set Jill back $9.75. (The vegetables at Charlie's, we're told, are fried in soybean oil. Other vendors reported frying foods in canola and vegetable oil.)

In total, lunch cost $36.50.

But we nearly filled a picnic table with our meatless meal — and almost toppled it with the portions.

Jill, who I deemed my experimental subject, said of the choices, the smoothie was her favorite. She found it refreshing with unique flavors, not "cloyingly sweet like some mass-produced smoothies."

And, of course, there's always one option for thirsty vegetarians available in no short supply: beer.

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