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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Bring appetite and stamina to annual Sussex show

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The STAR-LEDGER | August 7, 2002

Some people head to the fair to see the prize-winning eggplant or cheer for a young woman crowned Swine Queen. Others go to ride the Zip or wander through the Hall of Mirrors. And still others go to watch oinking piglets race around a miniature track.

I go to the fair to eat artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising food.

The Sussex County Farm and Horse Show, also known as the New Jersey State Fair, is the Garden State’s largest agricultural fair. Located in rural Augusta, its midway is swollen with foods closely identified with a state fair.

Where else can you get a plump corn dog two steps away from blue cotton candy, a sticky caramel apple next door to buttery-sweet kettle corn, and homemade ice cream straight from the creamery? Where can you get an authentic blooming onion?

The boardwalk may come close when it comes to all-American foods in all their greasy splendor, but this is where the real food action is. For sheer diversity, sheer convenience and sheer grease.

Bright signs herald the pickings in showy precision: Hand-Rolled Pretzels, Huge Roast Beef Sandwiches, Homemade Fudge, Curly Fries, Italian Sausage with Peppers and Onions, Fried Dough, Corn Dogs, Kettle Korn, Pierogies. There also are the standards, hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza. But that’s not why we go.

The most popular item at the fair is surely the blooming onion. You can get blooming onions these days at some restaurants, but the fair- originated variety is indisputably the genuine article.

An enormous rosette of spicy, batter-coated, deep-fried white onion, it is a food that fair-goers reverently carry on paper plates. “Look at it!” exclaims Ann Miller of Secaucus. Husband Robert takes advantage of the moment to reach for a succulent piece.

However, the spicy taste leaves you yearning for something sweet to soothe your singed tongue, so go over to Michael Koontz Candies for delectable homemade fudge. Preparing it from his grandmother’s original recipe, this third-generation candymaker from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., has been hawking his wares at the fair for 22 years.

The most popular flavor, according to Wilkes-Barre resident Joe Marso, who’s manning the counter, is plain old chocolate, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a flawless square, creamy, smooth, intensely sweet and chocolaty. Other popular flavors include peanut butter, cookies- and-cream, and the ultimate in sugary decadence, a knockout trio of chocolate-vanilla-peanut-butter.

Of course, no food says state fair more than the corn dog on a stick. This all-American treat combines the sweet taste of fluffy cornbread with a classic ballpark hot dog.

Strates Fine Foods sells 500 of the browned dogs every day during the fair. Andrew White of Manasquan, who works at the stand, attributes the huge popularity of this item to the fact that the corn dogs are made fresh daily at the stand, not trucked in frozen.

A buttery, hand-rolled pretzel from Der Pretzel Haus is a favorite, also. “That’s what we come for,” says Jennifer Case of Fredon. “I’ve never missed a fair in 40 years.” These are good pretzels: crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside.

Meghan Campbell’s favorite fair food by far is sugar-dusted funnel cakes. The 6-year-old Madison resident tried one last year and got hooked. “It’s so tasty,” she says, licking powdered sugar off her pinkie.

There’s also fried dough, a cousin of the funnel cake, which can be ordered with monstrous amounts of toppings dumped over it — apples with brown sugar, plump cherries, or dark chocolate and whipped cream.

Still got some room, right? Good, because no visit to the state fair would be complete without that summer perennial: ice cream.

There are literally dozens of choices, from thick milkshakes to triple- scoop cones lathered in rainbow sprinkles to old-fashioned root beer floats to quaint waffle sandwiches.

Bob Hetten has been in the ice cream business for 52 years. A resident of Whitehall, Pa., the veteran waffle-sandwich-maker says, “People used to eat ice cream, go on the rides and get sick as hell. Nobody wants to get sick anymore.”

Still, Hetten does a brisk business in waffle sandwiches, serving slabs of vanilla-chocolate-strawberry ice cream between two golden- brown waffles.

Right about this time, you will probably find yourself getting hungry all over again. A second ravenous wind of sorts. Which means it’s time for pierogies. Dipped into sour cream, of course.

And since you’ve got one tiny spot left in your stomach, you certainly can’t pass up the food stand hawking curly fries smothered in hot, creamy, cheese sauce. The spiral-shaped potato curls plop ever so easily into your mouth until there are none left.

And, now that you’ve sampled what the state fair has to offer, what’s next on our culinary journey?

A visit to the pig barn, naturally!