PALMETTO -- Discovering food at the Manatee County Fair is a journey in self-discovery.
To what limits will you push your body? How much self-loathing can you handle? And can there ever be such a thing as too much strawberry shortcake?
The answers for me: two different dogs, a burger, a couple boiled peanuts and two types of strawberry shortcake; I'm apparently a food masochist and no, there's never too much strawberry shortcake.
The key is to bring a friend to sample as much fare as you can, or want to. Herald photographer Paul Videla was more than willing to split a few items. Well, most items.
The only thing that grew more than my waistline in one night is the sense of community from the organizations that serve up fair food.
Yes, a corn dog made in a 50-year-old deep fryer does bring a town together.
Kiwanis Corn Dogs
It felt like a scene out of "Breaking Bad" showing up at a trailer with its doors and windows shut, to be the one who knocks for a corn dog.
It was the only way to go behind the scenes with the Manatee Sunrise Kiwanis without Mark and Joan Hildebrandt being mobbed by the masses for a legendary corn dog that's been a fair staple for more than a half-century.
Inside, the Hildebrandts were warming up a 55-year-old Hotpoint fryer before the fair officially opened for the first batch of $3-a-piece corn dogs.
"Why corn dogs? I couldn't tell you," Mark Hildebrandt said. "I've been a Kiwanian for over 30 years."
For about 55 years, the Kiwanis has
guarded a recipe handed down by a carnival worker given to the Pelot family, who run Pelot's Pharmacy in Bradenton. There's something magical in those dogs for the 28-member club.
"It is our single-biggest fundraiser, it funds all of our programs for the remainder of the year believe it or not," Hildebrandt said.
When the first dog -- straight from Sam's Club -- hits the grease, it sounds like a cooking time machine with a high-pitched hallow ting of the grease bubbling against the metal. Joan Hildebrandt wraps up the dog with a paper towel and puts the piping hot snack in my hand.
Somehow the corn dog retains a moist inside while having a perfect golden brown crisp on the outside -- perfect for the day's cool, dreary weather.
One down, 3,999 more corn dogs to go for the Kiwanis.
Fill up with Hope
One way to gauge your stomach's capacity is asking for a belly buster at the Filling Station operated by Hope International Ministries.
The 100 percent beef hot dog is topped with homemade chili and drizzled with cheese sauce. Somehow, the dog doesn't weigh heavy on the gut, even though figuring out a way to attack a feast in a bun can be challenging.
Pastors Ron and Donna Kutinsky smile with glee as they describe the dishes served up at the stand staffed by volunteers from multiple churches. They took over the booth five years ago from another church and realized how fickle fairgoers are with food.
One year the church decided to go with peach cobbler instead of strawberry shortcake. That didn't go over well, so it was back to the shortcake.
When the bell at the counter rings, it's time for the shortcake to sing. Donna Kutinsky gets her station set up, but something's different about this dessert. The church uses a biscuit that has a bit of a scone consistency.
"It really is conditional on the biscuit," Donna Kutinsky said. "That way when you put your berries on it, the juice goes right into the cake but doesn't make it soggy." She pours a glaze that is boiled on the spot from the strawberries and slaps a dollop of heavy whipped topping straight from a KitchenAid mixer bowl.
If comfort food won't do the trick, Hope Ministries serves up compassion at the fair, too.
"We do ministry here as well. There's lots of prayer," Ron Kutinsky said. "We have prayer buckets and we pray for people."
On Tuesday night, the churches band together, too, and pay entrance admission at the fair for the public that night, Ron Kutinsky said. Proceeds from the stand also have gone to local schools, fire departments and helped rebuild a school in Haiti.
Cooking with Cattlemen's
It's all beef and no nonsense at the Manatee County Cattlemen's and Cattlewomen's Association booth.
All-beef hamburgers from The Chop Shop and all-beef hot dogs fly out of the stand that's been at the fair since 1962. Anywhere from 150 to 200 burgers are sold each night, said Steven John, association president. The proceeds from the stand go to FFA, 4-H programs and other organizations.
The hamburger topped with lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion looks like a masterpiece on a bun from St. Armands Bakery. The burger was juicy as could be without being greasy. Always trust a beef rancher with hamburger patties.
Food is the foundation
Can you smell what the Church of the Rock is cooking? Because there's a little bit of everything from catfish sandwiches, cajun boiled peanuts, boiled corn-on-the-cob and build-your-own strawberry shortcake.
The Palmetto church maintains a women's booth for ministry, a men's booth, a young adult's booth and the youth group raises funds at the church grounds by parking cars. The funds either go for programs at the church, mission trips or other community outreach.
I popped a couple cajun boiled peanuts in and could only take two -- the kick was too much.
As the church showed me around, there were some things I wasn't sure I could even try. The corn-on-the-cob has a list of toppings that sound fit for a sandwich.
"People put mayonnaise, hot sauce, all sorts of crazy things on," said Matt Shackelford, youth pastor at the church.
"You used to think it was just butter and salt and pepper,' said Ruth Mathews, wife of church pastor Tad Mathews. "No, that is just boring now."
What's exciting about the fair, Mathews adds, is getting to connect with members of the church and the community she doesn't see that often.
"It's just a blessing even though we're working, we're getting to interact with people," she said.
By far, the strawberry shortcake is the most popular seller. Church of the Rock volunteers slice fresh strawberries each night to keep up with the demand. For $4, customers get a piece of pound cake and can put as many strawberries and whipped cream on top as they want.
At this point, I have to take this shortcake back to the office to share. Splitting it in half isn't going to do it anymore, because the shortcake would have been enough for a potluck dish.
Yes, at the Manatee County Fair, I fought the food -- and the food won.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. You can follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.