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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003 02:33 pm

Fair food

Elk meat, fried twinkies, and other new offerings on a stick

art411

It just wouldn't be the Illinois State Fair without some new food items--shoved on a stick, of course. And this year the newest culinary treats tempting fairgoers run the gamut from the lean and healthy to the rich and gooey.

With more than 200 vendors serving everything from cotton candy, corn dogs, and corn on the cob to fruit smoothies and even a five-course sirloin steak dinner, it's not easy to make waves in the saturated fair-food market. But the Pea Ridge Elk Ranch has gained notice by focusing on the health-conscious crowd that still eats meat. Elk is low-calorie, low-fat, and low-cholesterol, according to sales manager Dave Bryant. It's the leanest red meat available, says Bryant, and it even has fewer calories than skinless turkey or chicken.

The Pea Ridge concession stand, located in the fair's Agri-Expo, specializes in marinated elk kabobs. For $2, you get three chunks of skewered elk, designed to give you an easy way to eat as you walk around the fairgrounds. The lean meat is also available in burgers, bratwursts, and snack sticks. But are fairgoers really counting their calories?

"We've had an excellent response," says Bryant. On Monday morning he claimed Pea Ridge had served close to 700 customers since the fair's opening day on Friday.

John and Michele Price of Springfield and their two daughters were enjoying elk burgers and elk Polish sausage during their second stop at the stand this year.

"It's someplace you can bring the family and not overdo it on sugar," says John. "It's lean and tasty--you don't have to sacrifice the flavor for the healthiness of it."

Smiling, he adds, "It frees us up to splurge on elephant ears or ice cream later."

The elk ranch is located in Nebo, Illinois, in southern Pike County. It's making its first appearance at the fair, inspired by the positive response it received after participating in last year's Illinois products exhibition at the fairgrounds.

"We appeal to the outdoorsmen and hunters, but we also attract those who want to eat healthier," says Bryant, an engineer who switched careers this spring to push elk. Since April, he's been on the road in a refrigerated truck, appearing at various trade shows throughout the Midwest.

More information on the Pea Ridge Elk Ranch is available at www.elkranchers.com. You can also purchase elk meat in Springfield at Humphrey's Market and Robert's Foods.

If you just can't wrap your mind around the idea of healthier food at the Illinois State Fair, then head on over to one of this year's most popular new concession stands: Fried What! offers a variety of fried sweets like Twinkies, Snickers, strawberry shortcake, cheesecake, and Oreos. The booth draws a lot of curious onlookers, who take their time watching the process. But there are plenty of others who quickly buy into the concept.

On a recent morning, Gail Tadie arrives at the fair from her home in Galesburg with one thing on her mind: a fried Twinkie.

"This is my first stop," she says. A radio spot led her straight to Fried What! on Main Street. "It's delicious--it tastes lemony." While her husband deems the fried Twinkie just "OK," Tadie is hooked. "I love it," she says, laughing.

"My dog eats a Twinkie every day, so we told him we were coming here to eat a fried one."

The booth is manned by Barb Beeler, a former schoolteacher, and Norma Bowers, a former construction worker, both Illinois natives who now live in Dallas. The two vegetarians started their new careers a year ago by selling health food at local fairs in Texas, which didn't go over well. But after Bowers saw Diane Sawyer fry a Twinkie on TV, the wheels starting spinning. The two tested out batter recipes and various concoctions on their friends and neighbors before perfecting the process. They began at small events selling fried Twinkies. It took a while for people to catch on.

"People would walk by and say, 'Fried what?' That's how we got our name," says Beeler. During several four-day events, Bowers noticed a pattern: "The first two days people just walk by and look at us. Then the third day they would start testing it out, and then the fourth day, since it was their last chance, they'd come back and start eating. But here it's been ka-boom right from the start."

The Twinkies, Snickers, Oreos, cheesecakes, and strawberry shortcakes start out frozen. Then they're shoved on a stick, dipped in a flour-based batter, and fried at a high temperature until the sweets begin to get gooey. The fried items are then dusted with powdered sugar and served with berry or chocolate sauce. They also serve pickles, green tomatoes, and onions dipped in a Cajun batter, fried, and served with Ranch dressing.

In fact, business has been so brisk they've had to replenish supplies after running out of pickles. In their first three days, they sold 1,000 Snickers.

"It's 100 times more than we expected," Bowers says. "People are just now getting used to it. They'll be out here with a Coney dog in one hand and French fries in the other, and they see us and they're afraid of a fried Twinkie." She chuckles.

While fried Snickers is the booth's top seller so far, Beeler has her personal favorite: "The best thing we've got here is the cheesecake."

The two women--dressed in tennis shoes, floppy straw hats, and denim shirts splattered with batter--take the curiosity in stride and enjoy friendly banter with fairgoers, fielding questions from the crowd.

Actually, the fascination with all things deep-fried is nothing new. Battered and fried Mars Bars have supposedly become a staple in Scotland, and the fried Twinkie, invented in New York, has been a craze on the East Coast for several years. The unassuming, cream-filled spongecake, invented 71 years ago, packs 150 calories on its own, before being dipped in batter and fried in vegetable oil and dusted with sugar. You do the math.

If you think fried cookies and candy is going too far, even for fair food, be thankful this isn't the Ohio State Fair. This year that fair featured candied critters: chocolate-covered insects, cheese-flavored beetle larva, and blueberry-flavored insect parts.

A few more food highlights at the fair:

The spring rolls served at the Vietnamese tent in Ethnic Village.

In Conservation World, you can get a sandwich or rack of ribs from 17th St. BBQ. You can even purchase the legendary southern Illinois BBQ by the pound to take home.

The strawberry and black raspberry yogurt-based smoothies sold at Maui Wowi on Grandstand Avenue, are made with fresh fruit concentrate, bananas, and ice.

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