Monday, May 26, 2008

Little River Days

Food Fest
2008 Little Rivers Day eats: Tasty treats or overfried duds?
Wednesday, May 21, 2008 1:49 PM CDT

The variety of vendors at this year’s Little River Days Festival turned Founders Square into a deep-fried wonderland last weekend. Festival food is usually over-the-top in calories and price. There’s often interesting combinations that festival goers would never dream of creating in their own kitchens.

This weekend I gathered some willing accomplices and set out to find the best of the fair fare. Together, we managed to sample eight items and make it out of the festival without going into cardiac arrest.

My picks? Sweetater fries, fried green tomatoes and funnel cakes are the treats I’ll be looking forward to at next year’s Little River Days.

Potato Ribbons
$5 at R&L Catering
R&L Catering had at least two booths at the fair this year and typically drew long lines of snackers.

While the use of the term “ribbons” makes this dish sound exotic and yummy, I found this it to be a little disappointing. For $5, you get a paper plate loaded with fairly bland, slightly overcooked, spiral-cut potato chips. Warm chips are a novelty and the volume of “ribbons” is generous, but flavor is lacking. I let my husband finish this dish after trying a handful. Perhaps barbecue flavor or salt and vinegar could have saved them.

If you crave homemade potato chips now that Little River Days has ended, Livingston’s Butcher Shop and Deli on North Drive usually serves thick, hearty chips still warm from the fryer.

Sweetater Fries
$3 at What About Bob?
This distinctive booth features a grass table skirt and parasol. Bob Denton himself reached through the tiny window of his vintage trailer to pass a cardboard tray of well-done sweet potato fries to his cashier, Judy Simon. Simon said that the fries, along with the fish sandwiches, were their best sellers.

I shared my fries with a friend, Emily, and her twin 4-year-olds Philip and Esther. Like the potato ribbons, sweetater fries come without much adornment, so I squeezed ketchup in one corner of the tray. My friend had hoped they would be sprinkled in cinnamon and sugar, but I thought they tasted great slathered in ketchup. Esther tried one fry and said, “I thought they were bacons.” Philip seemed to enjoy them more and said he liked his with ketchup as well.

Fried Green Tomatoes
$4 at R&L Catering
The cashier at R&L said that this item, which featured six large slices in a crispy batter, along with the blooming onion, were their most popular sellers. This was one of my favorite snacks — the balance of batter and tangy tomato was just right, and they were nicely seasoned with salt and black pepper. Emily and I also comforted ourselves with the thought that we were eating deep fried vegetables, which added a little bit of nutrition to our meal.

Not everyone in my taste-testing crew agreed. Esther took one bite, put it back in the tray and shouted, “I wanna ride the train!” Philip managed to eat more of his slice, but eventually declared “Mommy, I don’t like the pepper.”

Rib Sandwich
$5 at Pioneer’s, Inc.
Three plump pork ribs draped over two slices of white bread is not my idea of a conventional sandwich. But the Pioneer’s knew what they’re doing. The bread simply serves as a way to blot up the extra grease and sauce from the meat, though Emily did tear off a few pieces.

I found the ribs to be rich and flavorful, though the edge piece I had was overcooked to the texture of jerky. The meat nearest the bone, on the other hand, was very tender. We both liked the thin, tangy sauce that was available in a squirt bottle at the stand. While most concession stands come from out of town, Pioneer’s is a local institution.

Funnel Cake
$4 at R&L Catering
Funnel cakes, with their pull-apart structure and heavy pile of powdered sugar, are the quintessential carnival food. I can never pass them up, even though I have been disappointed. Sometimes the confection isn’t fully cooked and reveals an oozing and unsanitary batter center, other times it’s overcooked (or refried?) and becomes tough and chewy as soon as it has cool. There’s no mountain of sugar that can cover up those mistakes.

The funnel cake at R&L was perfectly cooked. While Emily and I were working on the ribs, Philip had pulled apart and consumed half the cake. When we were ready for our portion of the dessert, he declared, “I had too much of a good thing!” and then asked mom if he might have one more bite.

Chocolate-dipped strawberries
$3 at Marty Lane
When I first heard about these from Recreation Department Director Pam Rudd, I was eager to try them. Chocolate dipped fruit sounded almost too gourmet to be at a spring fair. My imaginations might have set too high a standard.

Marty Lane’s strawberries are frozen and skewered three to a stick. The strawberries were deep red and the size of a child’s fist. I like the idea of being able to eat whole fruits, but frozen solid, these were tricky and teeth-tingling to consume. Also, I felt the chocolate coating had very little chocolate flavor. They seemed to have been stored in a freezer case where they absorbed a dozen flavors from the other snacks stored there. Next year I’ll just dip my own strawberries.

Chocolate-dipped banana
$3 at Marty Lane
A whole banana, kebabbed and coated in the same low-quality chocolate shell as the strawberries, this dessert was softer and a little easier on the teeth. But it was merely a substitute for the stand’s popular chocolate-coated cheesecake, which had sold out by the time my husband got there.

Again, Joe and I liked that we could find something semi-healthful amid the deep fried Oreos and candy bars. He seemed to enjoy the dessert, but I found the lingering mystery flavors in the coating distracting.

Deep fried Ding Dong
$4 at Marty Lane
You didn’t think I was going to pass this one up, did you? This dessert didn’t know where to quit. The chocolate-coated snack cake with crème filling gets an additional chewy donut batter coating. It’s served on a stick and sits in a pool of chocolate sauce, beneath a mound of powdered sugar. My teeth hurt just thinking about it.

Joe and I thought it was pretty good, at first bite. But we both agreed it would have been better if we had a third person to share it with.

Emily Parrino can be reached at 887-3235 or

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