MANATEE -- The Manatee County Fair is back in town, which means residents are getting their fill of a traditional fair food -- corn dogs, caramel apples, cotton candy -- and more unique options like deep fried soda.
"People come in here just to stroll and eat," said Dan West, fair manager. "They eat all day, going from one place to another. When I was a kid, we ate dinner at the fair every night."
The Ridgway family from Parrish is one of those families who don't come for the rides, but for the cuisine they get once a year at the fair.
"We come for the food. That's all we do," said Dave Ridgway who was sharing a funnel cake with daughter, Alyse. His wife, Sandy, was having a pretzel. The family shared a large lemonade.
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Patrons lined up at the order window of the Cattlemen's booth for hamburgers, hot dogs and barbecue sandwiches, a staple since 1962.
"It was started to raise money to help children in FFA and 4-H," said Faye Mann, director of the Manatee County Cattlemen Association. "Our barbecue is famous -- we cook the roast on the grill and shred it up. The burgers are extra thick and juicy. The crowd runs in spurts. About the time
you take a break, the line is back."
Another food tradition at the fair is the Manatee County Sunrise Kiwanis' secret-recipe corn dogs that have been served for more than 50 years.
"Only two people know it," said member Richard Birkholz of how the batter is prepared.
"They are homemade. We make the batter, stick the hot dogs and put them in the grease."
The organization expects to sell between 1,600 and 1,800 corn dogs at this year's fair.
"And every dime goes back into the community," Birkholz said.
Jonathan and Rachel Xavier, with son Jackson, from Palmetto took a break Saturday afternoon to munch on their No. 1 fair food -- again, the corn dog.
"When I was young, it was all about the rides," Jonathan said. "Now it's all about the food. That's most definitely the top thing of the fair."
Moving away from the ordinary offerings, people stopped to marvel at the assortment of deep fried foods available -- candy bars, pastries, fruit, butter, bacon, bubble gum and even soda.
A native of New Jersey, Marilyn Falkoski ordered up some zeppoles.
"I haven't had these since I left home," she said. "Fair food is the most important part of any fair.
Matthew Kirby, a Braden River High School student from Palmetto, ventured to try deep-fried Mountain Dew.
"I didn't think it was possible," he said. "My mom pointed it out, so I went to ask. I was like, 'Oh, I've got to try this."
The booth, near the Circle of Fire ride, offers fried soda along with noncarbonated beverages like lemonade and punch.
"It was like little pieces of funnel cake," Kirby said. "It was awesome. I enjoyed it. I'm going to try Pepsi next time."
Deep-fried Pepsi is what Lisa Neill, of Bradenton, purchased, along with two deep-fried Twinkies.
"I've never had a deep-fried Twinkie, but everyone talks about it," Neill said. Her daughter, Faith, picked out the fried soda. "It tastes like Pepsi. I would try it again. I wonder how they do that."
But the workers of the popular vendor wouldn't reveal their secrets.
"Anything fried is better," Neill concluded. "Fried makes you happy."
The assortment of foods will be available at the fairgrounds in Palmetto through Jan. 27.
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.