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Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007 09:22 pm

Culler’s french fries

This year, more than 23 tons of spuds will give their best to this man

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Untitled Document Lemonade shakeups. Corndogs. Saltwater taffy. Honey ice cream. Few traditions at the Illinois State Fair are more hallowed than its special foods. A day at the fair just isn’t complete without them. And at the Illinois State Fair, as well as dozens of other state and county fairs and festivals ranging from Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio down to the Carolinas, one of the food traditions that’s been around the longest is Culler’s french fries. It’s also one of the best. Walking up to the concession window last year for my annual treat, I remarked to the guy behind the counter that I’d been coming to that exact same spot at the fair for Culler’s fries for as long as I could remember. “Yup,” the man replied as he expertly loaded cup after cup with piping hot fries for the waiting line of customers. “Culler’s been in this location for over 60 years.” When I said I hadn’t seen Mr. Culler himself for the last couple years, he laughed. “Oh, he’s been here. You just must have missed him. He’s over at the campground right now. He’s 80 years old, but he still comes on the fair circuit.”
I immediately wanted to write about Mr. Culler and his fries, but I’d already filed my columns that would come out during last year’s fair; so later that evening, when the crowds had thinned, I returned and asked for a phone number where I could reach him the next summer. Dialing that number recently, I wondered if Culler would answer. And even if he did, would he still be in the traveling french fry business? I needn’t have worried. “He’s over at the horse races right now,” said the voice at the other end of the line. “Can you call back in half an hour?” Culler, who was celebrating his 81st birthday that very day, answered my second call himself, his voice strong, full of life, and filled with cheer. Forest Culler has been selling French fries at fairs for 62 years. Born in Ohio, he was raised on a farm. “I’m a country boy,” he says. One of six children, he’s been working hard all his life. “My daddy left my mama and us kids when I was young,” he told me. “So I always had to work as well as go to school.” In spite of hardships, Culler has good memories of his childhood. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I wish every kid could be raised on a farm,” he says. “Seems like farm kids always have a smile on their faces.” After serving in World War II and Korea as a Navy medic, he got the idea of selling fries at fairs after seeing the popularity of a french fry stand in Pennsylvania.  Culler and his wife, Dora, have had their permanent residence in northern Florida near Tallahassee for many years. This season Dora, recuperating from an operation, is staying home for the first time in decades instead of traveling the fair circuit with her husband. She’s making good progress, though, and Culler fully expects that by the time he returns home in mid-November, she’ll be ready to resume the couple’s favorite activity, dancing, and her special love, karaoke singing. Ordinarily I’m not much of a french fry fan. I take a pass on the mostly ho-hum, mostly previously frozen fries that too often are sold in restaurants. For me to be enthusiastic about french fries, they have to be exceptional. Culler’s are.  Made from Idaho russets, the potatoes are freshly cut before frying in a special oil that Culler says is “probably the most expensive shortening there is.” It’s healthier than many other frying mediums used in commercial frying, too. These days, even some fairs and festivals are beginning to ban trans-fats, but Culler won’t have to make a change: the oil he’s used for as long as he can remember contains only trace amounts of the harmful substances, not enough to disqualify it under new guidelines.
 I’m not alone in my love of Culler’s french fries. In June Culler pre-orders the potatoes he’ll need to ensure a steady supply that meets his standards. This year in Illinois alone, he’ll take delivery of over 23 tons of spuds. Last year two exhibitors who come to many of the same fairs as Culler decided to keep track of how many of his fries they consumed during the season. One ate 116 orders of fries, while his buddy lost count after eating 90 orders. Culler says that one of his North Carolina venues annually surveys its fairgoers about why they’ve come. More often than not, eating Culler’s fries is the number one choice. At fairs and festivals everywhere, Culler says, “There are always people who ask the ticket takers at the gates to let them in free, ’cause they just want come in to eat my fries. ’Course, they always end up having to pay.”
Culler’s french fries are still served the same way they were when he started: fresh out of the hot oil, piled to overflowing in a simple paper cone, with salt shakers and bottles of vinegar on the counter for customers to add to their taste. When I was little, the vinegar was an intriguingly exotic alternative to catsup and was one of the things that made Culler’s fries special. But why doesn’t Culler offer catsup? “Well, I did at the very beginning,” he chuckles. “But too many kids had too much fun squirting catsup at each other and everybody else, so I decided it wasn’t worth the mess. Whenever people ask for catsup, I tell them, “I’m selling potatoes, not tomatoes!”
Culler’s business has expanded over the years. He now operates two stands, sometimes at different fairs/festivals, though for bigger venues, such as the Illinois State Fair, the two concessions are at the same event. He has eight to nine employees on the road with him and takes good care of them, housing them in top-of-the-line house trailers complete with satellite TVs. Culler’s standards are as high for his workers as for his fries: “I make sure my boys are clean and well-behaved,” he says. Though his two children have followed other career paths, Culler’s will remain in the family. His nephew, Jim, who’s been working with him a mere 25 years, will carry on when Culler retires. Culler looks back at his career with pride. “Knowing what I’ve accomplished makes me feel good,” he says. “I’ve made so many friends in so many places.”
After 62 years, does Culler still eat his own fries? “Sure,” he says. “I sample and eat ’em all the time. I’m always checking to see that they’re just right.”
“It keeps me young.”

Culler’s French Fry stands at the Illinois State Fair are located on the east side of Grandstand Avenue across from the Illinois State Police tent, and on the west side of Main Street in front of the Exposition Hall and across from the First Lady’s tent.
Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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