It’s that time of year again: fair season. Also known as “the week of eating so much fried food that I blew through a mega-pack of Tums.” Nobody said it better than Templeton the Rat, a fair is a veritable smorgasbord.
Sure, we hear a lot about the mind-bending new food combos hitting fairs each summer — currently, I’m deep into a quest to try everything strange at my local county fair, and have downed too many peanut butter bacon bites to mention — but what about the classics? You know, the foods, both fried and frozen, that you find yourself jamming into your maw year after year as you plod toward the Ferris Wheel. Have we forgotten about elephant ears and candy apples and all the other trans-fat laden treats that form the backbone of the American summer diet?
Uproxx sure hasn’t. That’s why we’re bringing you the Official Uproxx Power Rankings of Fair Food Classics. Love it or leave it, it’s clear that not all fair food is created equally. And when you’re paying $6 for a piece of fried dough and sugar, it’s important to determine where your priorities lie.
#15: Corn on the Cob
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What’s not to love about corn on the cob? It’s the healthiest, freshest option on the midway.
Unfortunately, it’s also the most boring option. You’re at the fair, why are you wasting stomach space on what is essentially diet food? Not only that, but corn on the cob is something you can easily make for yourself any time you want. Meaning that the top dollar you pay for a piddly cob at the fair is a terrible deal.
#14: Roasted Nuts
You know the place. It’s the stand with the guy calling out his “unlimited free samples” every time you pass. And boy, does it smell good (heck, that’s their motto). Also, nuts! You can’t go wrong with nuts! It’s a portable, healthy snack only rendered mildly unhealthy when coated in one of the forty flavors on offer.
But here’s the thing that knocks roasted nuts down in the ranking: they never taste as good as they smell. They’re always just a little bit stale, and never hot like you want them to be. And have you ever actually seen anyone buy those nuts? No. Because everyone knows they can take advantage of the free samples.
#13: Soft-Serve Ice Cream
Soft-serve ice cream is a great, refreshing treat for cooling down after hours of wandering around in the hot sun.
But that’s where its benefits end. Soft-serve ice cream? Meh. There are what, two flavors and a twist? Not to mention its propensity for quick melting. Move on, there are better cold treats on offer. If you still find yourself hankering for a bowl of frozen creaminess, you can pick up a pint in the grocery section of your freezer on the way home.
What’s more American than a pie, especially when it’s eaten at the fair? Usually you can find a good ten flavors on offer from a local booth, which boosts the foods “variety” score (this is very scientific).
Unfortunately, the real hit to pie comes in its ubiquity and its non-portability. Because again, why waste your money on something you can eat year-round, especially when it keeps you from waiting in line for your eighth go on the Zipper? And it’s not much fun to snack on between rides… unless you’re down to stroll around with a pint of ice cream to make it a la mode.
#11: Candy Apples
Candy apples, and their close relative caramel apples, are easy to find at the fair. Usually they’re sold right alongside the cotton candy and kettle corn. The great thing about them is that they’re fairly portable, and they take time to eat.
But really, what’s so great about candy apples? You struggle through the chewy candy coating, possibly risking thousands of dollars of dental work you’ve invested in over the years, to get to an apple, of all things. The tart and the caramel are kinda whack as a duo. And when the caramel is gone… it’s just an apple. Get something soft and fried instead.
#10: Fried Candy Bars
Once upon a time, fried Twinkies and Snickers and Milky Ways grabbed headlines. But that was about ten years ago, when they were still a fair food novelty.
Now, we know them for what they are: gut-busting logs of sugar and dough. Snickers are already tasty enough. Why bother ruining them by dipping them in batter and frying them into oblivion? The worst part about fried candy bars is that they tend to sit around for awhile before they’re sold. Which means that, instead of savoring the hot fried freshness of the batter, you get a greasy, lukewarm lump of dough. Nope. Just put a Snickers in the microwave for 35 seconds. You’ll be happier.
#9: Kettle Corn
Now we’re getting into the territory of the good stuff. Kettle corn is one of those foods: you get the delightful salty crunch of popcorn, with the occasional surprise of candy coating. It’s perfectly portable, and if you don’t finish the bag at the fair, it travels home well.
That said, kettle corn is a little too boring to really climb the ranks to the top of the list. But it’s a solid pick up on the way to the car at the end of a long day.
#8: Dippin’ Dots
Dippin’ Dots will be eternally known as the Ice Cream of the Future. And back when I was raising chickens for the Poultry Club, I believed that promise. But now, nearly fifteen years later, it’s starting to seem like a bit of a lie.
Which is nothing against Dippin’ Dots. They come in exciting flavors, and the texture — at least, for the first three bites — is fantastic, with the crunchiness from the ultra-frozen pellets giving way to the melting creaminess of the ice cream.
But, very quickly, those pellets do melt, leaving behind a pool of half-melted ice cream and broken promises of ice cream innovations. Dippin’ Dots are a good option. But not a true winner.
#7: Fried Pickles
Fried pickles are savory-food perfection. The tangy saltiness of the pickles perfectly balances the crisp batter they’re wrapped in. And then, to end it all, you get to dip the fried pickles in ranch dressing.
But they might not be for everyone, which is why they only ended up in seventh place. First off, they can be a bit salty, and also a bit greasy. And if the tempura falls off prematurely, then you are, in the words of my father-in-law, just eating a “hot pickle.” And where’s the fun in that?
#6: Cheese Fries
This is where the ranking starts to get difficult. How can cheese fries be distinguished from elephant ears and cotton candy? The only thing reason I can give for bumping this tasty treat down in the rankings is the fact that the cheese can be a bit one-note with the fries, and that it can sit rather heavy in the stomach — which makes it a tough thing to eat when you find yourself needing to stop for a bite on Wristband Day.
True story: I once had a girl barf her cheese fries on me while we were riding the Ferris Wheel. You don’t want to be that person. So save the cheese fries for the day you’re planning on visiting the animal barns.
#5: Funnel Cake
Leaving aside my own strange funnel cake aversion, this one is a favorite of many, and deserves its high ranking. It is a solidly fair-only food, and comes out hot enough to burn fingers. At its core, it’s fried dough and powdered sugar, but it can also be topped with anything from chocolate sauce to strawberries and cream. It’s perfect for sharing with friends.
But the fact, there’s a better option for fried dough out there, which keeps funnel cake from ascending any higher in the ranks.
#4: Snow Cones
Snow cones are the perfect refreshment after a long day at the fair. They’re not too filling, and they’re cold enough to rejuvenate, and they take time to eat. Unlike ice cream, they’re not particularly messy. Plus, the flavors, which can be combined or eaten alone, are out of this world good. Tiger’s Blood, anyone? Snow cones are, in a word (er, three words), the perfect portable popsicle.
#3: Cotton Candy
You might be questioning my sanity on this one, but hear me out: almost nothing is better than cotton candy. A puffy ball of spun sugar that melts the minute it meets your tongue? Yes, please. And I swear the colors have different flavors. Cotton candy is portable, it’s light on the stomach for hardcore ride days, and it transports perfectly from the midway to home. It is the stuff of summer dreams.
The only thing bringing it down: the fact that it’s pure sugar. Which means that it will not only kill you in a multitude of ways, but it’s also not the most filling thing to drop a Hamilton on.
#2: Elephant Ears
Elephant ears (also known as Navajo fry bread in other areas of the country) are almost peak fair food perfection — almost. They’re what you think of when you think of going to the fair. The thick discs of fried dough are chewy and hot, and topped with just enough cinnamon sugar to keep you satisfied. The reason these made the rankings above funnel cake is all about texture. With elephant ears, you never know what a single bite will yield. Will you grab from the chewy center, or come away with one of the more unexpectedly crispy thin spots? Either way, you know you’ll be satisfied.
So what do Elephant Ears lack, to keep them from the top spot on our rankings? Well, a balance of macronutrients. Which brings us to…
#1: Corn Dogs
The epitome of what you should be gravitating toward at the fair, is the corn dog. It’s the perfect portable meal. You have your salty protein with the hot dog center, wrapped in the comforting carb blanket that is the freshly fried batter outside (it’s even got a hint of sweet thanks to the cornmeal). And it’s served on a stick, which means that you can chomp down on it while you shoot darts at underfilled balloons in an attempt to win a giant inflatable bottle of Sriracha for your beloved. God Bless America, the corn dog is everything great about this country, served fried and on a stick.
Now go and eat to your heart’s content. Because fair season comes but once a year, and your diet starts… later!