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Finest fare of the fair

PALMETTO — OK, so when I left the fairgrounds, I was waddling.

But I thought to myself: “Hey, after such an exhaustive test of the culinary choices at the Manatee County Fair Midway, I am lucky I can walk at all.”

Maybe I should have skipped the Alligator Eggs? The barbecue? The sushi?

My junky field day Friday started with swamp cabbage, that native Florida dish made from the soft interior tissue of cabbage palms. You have to cut the trees down to harvest the “heart of palm” that is the main ingredient in the dish.

“I cut 25 down to do this swamp cabbage,” explained Bucky Godwin, 37, of Myakka City, who was selling the soupy concoction for $5 a whack at a place called Susie Qs. “It’s our heritage,” he added.

It had a soft, bland taste and texture, and its color was sort of gray, but it was pretty good as swamp cabbage goes.

“One vegetable dish for health before I try a main course,” I told myself.

At The Pickle Barrel, you can peek over the counter and see Brandon Lawson, 20, and his brother, Christian, 18, assemble a quite respectable meal of sirloin tips.

First, they asked how I liked my sirloin.

“Rare,” I said.

They cut up the beef and threw it on a grill, where it smoked and sizzled until it was just barely cooked. Then, Brandon Lawson loaded it with sauteed onions, green peppers and mushrooms, piling real mashed potatoes on the side. It cost only $8 for a small version that looked mountainous in a paper carton.

The meat was good quality, and the potatoes were really delightful, mashed with their skins on them.

Another good entree I found at Ol’ Tex Bar-B-Q. I knew it was authentic because there was a pile of wood in front and smoke swirled around the stand.

I tried a small pork sandwich on a 4-inch white bun ($5). It featured shredded pork set in a hopelessly sloppy and gooey sauce. It was ideal fair food because it was super messy. I always feel I can just get fully down and dirty at the fair without any loss of dignity.

There’s no reason to stand on ceremony with the condiments, either.

The “hot” barbecue sauce in a big jug on the end of the counter went on smoothly. It left a slow burn in my mouth.

After I wolfed it down, I thought dessert might help.

That’s when I saw a sign that read: “Alligator Eggs.”

This may sound gross, but Alligator Eggs are not eggs at all. They’re Oreo cookies fried in batter and dusted with powdered sugar.

I tried an order made by Shad Bourdon, 20, of South Bend, Ind., who was working at Colglazier’s Elephant Ears. Each order cost $3 and included five Alligator Eggs.

If I was starving alone on a desert island, they would probably have seemed good, but having already overindulged, it took everything I had to even taste one.

To psyche myself, I noted they resembled the famous New Orleans pastry called a beignet.

They were a little too sweet.

It was my cue to halt the mission, but on the way out, I spotted sushi for sale.

I had never seen sushi sold at a fair, so I asked the owner of a stand called the Ninja Express whether anyone ever ordered it.

“Oh, sure,” said Elmer Neutzling, who lives in Mississippi with his Japanese wife, Isae, but travels the fair circuit selling Asian food. “It’s the fastest-growing food in America.”

She got out her sushi tools and rolled me a fresh California Roll that cost a reasonable $7 for six pieces.

Each one glistened with bright bits of fresh cucumber, avocado and (imitation) crab rolled in white rice and served with soy sauce and a spicy paste. She handed me chopsticks.

Perfect end to a perfect day.

There was only one more dish I would consume as a nightcap: Pepto-Bismol.

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