Kansas Reflector editor Clay Wirestone eats his Burnt Ends Fries at the Kansas State Fair on Sept. 10, 2022, in Hutchinson. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Roving with Clay Wirestone Our opinion editor travels Kansas and beyond for stories off the beaten path. Read them all here.
Roving with Clay Wirestone
Our opinion editor travels Kansas and beyond for stories off the beaten path. Read them all here.
When I arrived at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson on Saturday morning with the Kansas Reflector crew, I moved backward and forward in time.
Backward because every summer my mother would drag my unenthusiastic preteen and teenage self to county fairs. I remembered the pungent smell of sheds overflowing with goats and sheep, cows and fowl. And forward because, despite living in Kansas for decades, I had never actually made it to the state fair. Even on a drizzly grey morning, the fairgrounds sprawled, festooned with the familiar livestock but also a carnival midway, event pavilions and dozens of food stands.
The Kansas Reflector team showed up to cover the gubernatorial debate between Gov. Laura Kelly and Attorney General Derek Schmidt. So much more remained to be seen and experienced, however. Maybe, I thought, we could dig into a variety of the fair food — from simple to elaborate — and see what experiences the culinary cavalcade sparked.
Throughout the day, the team and I ate at least five different dishes.
These are their stories. And mine.
Hordes of hungry fairgoers claimed my first choice for breakfast. The haystack — an apparently mouthwatering combination of tater tots, sausage gravy, eggs and cheese — wouldn’t make an appearance on my personal menu. The food truck was out of gravy. Eggs, too.
So I made my way to one of at least three Pronto Pup stands at the fair. The ambitious slogan “famous banquet on a stick” adorns the yellow stands, which are packed full of hot dogs, deep fat fryers and folks preparing the proprietary batter coating. I didn’t know what to expect after ordering a corndog at 10 a.m., but my Pronto Pup hit the spot. The hot dog within tasted just fine, but the the freshly deep-fried, crispy coating took the snack to another level.
The Oregon-based company lays claim to creating the very first corn dog in the early 1940s. All hail the ingenuity of George and Vera Boyington. Also the kindness of the employee who sold me a corn dog so early without judgment.
I was ready, finally, to hear the governor and attorney general explore their different realities.
OMG Chicken Sandwich
Alice Mannette from the Hutchinson News covered several new food options at the fair in a preview article last week, including this creation.
Matthew Hall, the vendor, told the News that “we are trying to take the state fair experience and make it an outdoor dining experience,” upping the ante year after year. This chicken sandwich certainly goes above and beyond. It all begins with a Krispy Kreme glazed doughnut, split in two. Add a couple of bacon strips. Finally, insert cornflake-coated white meat chicken in the middle, coated with a maple syrup glaze.
I’m going to be honest here: This sandwich demanded too much from this consumer. I came to the sandwich after writing my analysis of the debate and helping update the website with other reporters’ pieces. So I might have been a touch stressed. But I would have preferred to eat the doughnut, bacon and chicken patty separately.
The Kansas Reflector team wanted to explore the fairground further, and I needed to take a different approach. So we headed off to find alcohol.
Burnt Ends Fries
We found both drinks and eats at the state fair beer garden. Now under new management, according to Mannette, it created the next two featured delicacies just this year. After the chicken sandwich mixed with a bacon-y doughnut, I was ready to try another combination.
Enter the Burnt Ends Fries.
They consisted, as best I could tell, of tender beef barbecue atop a thick sauce. A few bits of corn peeked through, and a batch of hefty French fries supported the entire edifice. They were delicious, especially after walking the length of the fairground a couple of times. By this point the weather had stopped cooperating, and the sky spat rain while unleashing chilly breezes. Warm fries and an accompanying beverage took the edge off.
Inside the beer garden, crowds watched football on big-screen TVs and cheered. I was looking for my next gustatory subject.
Waffle Cheese Curds
New Kansas Reflector reporter Rachel Mipro searched the fair for this item, which serendipitously ended up on the same menu as the Burnt Ends Fries. Waffle Cheese Curds appeared to be a batch of cheese curds coated in a thin layer of waffle batter and fried. A plastic cup of hot honey accompanied them.
Rachel graciously allowed me to sample her snack, and there was good news and bad news.
The bad news was that the hot honey was — to use the technical term — gross. The good news was that the battered cheese curds could inspire carney cooks for generations to come. The chewy cheese and sweet fried outer coating married perfectly.
Rachel and I didn’t manage to find our other quarry: the Cookie Dough Explosion funnel cake. I don’t know of a fair food more perfect than your basic funnel cake. What could cookie dough possibly contribute, let alone an explosion of same?
The day’s food escapades wrapped with three members of our six-person party ordering Frozen Cheesecake on a stick.
You can’t just put the cheesecake on a wooden spear, though. The public requires something extra. Thus, the vendor at the state fair coated the dessert in a chocolate shell. These were a hit across team Reflector, but I found myself simply wanting a simple piece of cheesecake. The stick and chocolate brought portability and a dash of sweetness.
At this point, I didn’t just feel full. My stomach wanted me to know that it had closed up shop for the day and wouldn’t be accepting any more visitors. That was fine, as I had tried five dining experiences, from the familiar corn dog to the almost avant garde OMG sandwich. My co-workers eyed me warily on the walk back to the grass parking lot, as though I might burst at any moment.
They needn’t have worried. I made it back home intact and ready to eat again, albeit a few days later.
If you head to Hutchinson this week, just know this: The fair stands ready to feed you.
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