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Journal reporter spends a day cooking at the fair
A Sugar Shack employee demonstrates the proper technique for spinning cotton candy.
As I’m standing over a hot griddle, grease popping and searing my arms, sweat running down my forehead, I begin to think that being here may be a mistake.
I’d spend longer on the task, maybe ponder if there is a single place on the planet I’d rather not be than here, but I honestly don’t have the time.
After all, there’s a horde of hungry people queued up outside of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Ladies Auxiliary hamburger booth at the Stanislaus County Fair, and I — for some unknown reason — am the one responsible for making sure their patties are cooked to perfection.
Never mind the fact that I’ve never cooked a burger before. Never mind the fact that my specialties lie in the field of eating food, rather than cooking it. No, just keep my head down, keep focused, keep flipping and moving those patties along their predefined cooking areas, keep seasoning and glancing longingly at the clock that will soon free me from this greasy prison.
I blame Penny Rorex, director of communications for the Stanislaus County Fair. If it weren’t for her, I’d be sitting at home in my pajamas curled up with a good book, enjoying my day off.
I wonder, why on earth did I ever write a column about my love for food that comes from trucks — just like those at the Stanislaus County Fair? Why did Rorex chance to read it? And why on earth did I agree when she suggested I spend a day roaming around the fair trying my hand at cooking different fair food staples?
“It’ll be fun,” she said. “You’ll flip burgers, dip corn dogs, spin cotton candy, fry mini-donuts, and roast corn!”
I think my salivary glands took over the decision making at that point. I wasn’t really interested in making the food; I just wanted to eat it all.
As I’m trying to wrap up my first assignment with the burgers — just the beginning of what I’m now sure will be a day of pure misery — I’m feeling comfortable enough with my workload to start a little half-hearted conversation with my co-workers.
“So, uh, how long have you all been doing this?” I muster, ever the inquisitive reporter.
I hear echoes from around the room of five years, 10 years, and then Barbara Branch casually mentions that she’s been working the booth since Aug. 3, 1956. She doesn’t even live in Turlock anymore; she’s traveled from Idaho just for the privilege of flipping burgers for a week.
As I glance around the room for the stray straight jacket, Branch tells me about how she loves the fair, about how she runs into people she hasn’t seen for 15 years or more and lets slip that several relatives join her at the food booth every year.
I’m beginning to think that she might not be as crazy as I first thought right when the clock strikes 1:30 p.m. and it’s time to move on to corn dogs.
“You’ve been cooking here for a half hour and you got no complaints,” says one of the VFW cooks as I leave. “And that pisses me off.”
Hm. Maybe I’m not as bad at this cooking thing as I first thought.
I try to carry my positivity into Stroud’s Concessions’ Monster Dogs booth, home of the biggest corn dog you’ll ever see. No, seriously.
The owner, Tom Stroud had to sign a special contract with Oscar Meyer to produce 7,000 pounds of these massive franks. They’re so darned big that normal corn dog sticks won’t even hold them — Stroud had to get a wood mill to produce some heavy duty sticks just for these gigantic corn dogs.
I’m led into the booth, shown how to dip the dog into the batter and then lower it into one of six heavy-duty fryers, and then told to have at it.
I think I do a decent job, but when I pull out my piping hot corn dog there’s a distinctly beak-like appendage of fried batter from where I — apparently — didn’t move quite quickly enough in frying my Monster Dog.
“That’s a thing of beauty right there,” Stroud said.
“It looks like a bird!” said one cashier, confirming my worst suspicions.
“It’s not supposed to look pretty,” chimed in another worker.
Taking a bite, it still tasted pretty good, despite the looks.
Stroud told me he’s been in the fair business for 38 years now, and that he owns nine vendors at the Stanislaus County Fair this year.
It all started when he was bumming a ride to Texas with a friend who was going to work at a carnival. The friend suggested Stroud stop at the carnival to earn a bit of extra money and Stroud loved it so much he never ended up leaving.
He finally got to Texas a few years ago, he said, and he doesn’t think he missed out on much of anything.
Ready for desert, it was time to move on to the Sugar Shack — another of Stroud’s concessions — where I’d be making some cotton candy.
I huddle in the tiny truck with my two new co-workers as they flip the switch to the cotton candy machines and I suddenly feel as though I’m trapped in a spider’s web. Filaments of cotton candy are flying through the air covering, well, everything.
Through the cotton candy storm I get a brief demonstration: a quick dip of the paper cone, a sharp turn of the wrist to pull the loop of cotton candy from the machine, and a speedy wrapping of the sweet treat around the cone.
On my first try, I skillfully bash the cone into the spinning machine, making a horrible noise like sticking a playing card into a fan.
My coworkers grimace and try to show me again.
In a half-hour, I gradually get better at spinning this cotton candy, but it’s no easy task. It’s actually a really difficult task. I’d rather be writing columns any day.
I eventually get to the point where I’m comfortable with the blue cotton candy, but the red is still a mystery to me. That horrible fan-like sound of failure keeps ringing through my ears as I beg, plead for it to be time to make mini donuts.
When I see Rorex waving at me through the window of the Sugar Shack, I gladly bid adieu to my cotton candy cohorts — 5-year veterans of the trade — and make my way over to Danny Johnson and Naftuli Furman’s mini donut shack.
As soon as I get nearby I’m floored with the scent of freshly frying donuts. In visual range, I’m wowed by the automatic donut machine that can pound out 2,400 mini-donuts per hour using 50 pounds of mix.
The process seems simple at first as Johnson and Furman have me bagging donuts, sprinkling a little powdered sugar, and keeping an eye on the machine. This is the kind of thing I could do at the fair, I think. Simple enough that even I couldn’t screw it up.
Then the donuts start to look a bit more like donut holes and I go screaming to Johnson.
A master baker who went to baking school in the 1970s, working his way through classes by putting in hours at a donut shop, Johnson quickly diagnosed the problem and discarded the misshapen donuts.
Johnson told me how he first had the dream of owning his own mini-donut booth in the ‘80s, when he saw one at a fair. Two years ago, after a long career in healthcare, Johnson made that dream a reality and has been traveling the country with appearances almost every week.
Before I know it I’ve become embroiled in a deep conversation about donuts, international romance novels, and fairs. As Rorex comes to drag me to my last assignment, I find myself unwilling to leave the mini donut shack, but a reporter’s tasks wait for no man.
I’m supposed to be roasting corn at the All-American Barbecue stand, but as I roll up in a courtesy golf cart it becomes apparent that much of the cooking is already done. I don’t have much to do but stand around and supervise.
But that’s just fine with me after a hectic, exhausting day.
Ken Palms, a man who has been working at the All-American Barbecue stand for 10 years, stands and chats with me as we watch the tri-tip, chicken, and ribs sizzle over hot coals. Undoubtedly a master griller, my time with Palms is filled with constant tips on how I could improve my own cooking techniques at home.
The man exudes an understanding and appreciation for his work. Palms, like everyone else I’ve met at the fair, seems to just love what he does for a living.
As I think back through my day, the boiling grease, the misshapen corn dogs, the cotton candy webbing, and the mini donut holes, I have to stop and ask him. Why? Why would he — like so many others I’ve met — sign up for this year after year?
“You either love it or you hate it,” Palms said. “I get to come to work every day and do something I love.”
If you’re in search of a food taster — not a chef — contact Alex Cantatore by e-mailing or calling 634-9141 ext. 2005.