I've spent almost three decades living in Virginia and never once visited the state fair. This year, I decided to rectify that appalling record. I had a professional interest, of course, and that was in the food.
State fairs are known for their outrageous-bordering-on-hedonistic fare, mostly because of the fried food. Sweet, savory, salty: Basically, if it's edible, you can fry it and sell it at the fair. (It's pretty much like the "we can pickle that sketch" from "Portlandia.") I spent an afternoon at this year's event in Doswell, Va., about 80 miles south of Washington, trying as many crazy things as my time and appetite would allow. Here they are, ranked from worst to best.
Don't fall for the hype: Avoid deep-fried butter at all costs. Basically what you get for $5 is half a stick of salted butter (on a stick, naturally) that has been battered, fried and topped with cinnamon, powdered sugar and caramel sauce. I wanted to like this, partially because the guy who made it was so friendly and partially because I wanted to prove all the skeptics wrong, but alas, there was no helping it. The batter was fine enough. Once I got past it, though, all I encountered was solid, still pretty cold, butter. Pass.
Deep-fried Swiss Rolls
These hit that sweet spot between not horrible and not amazing. The portion is hard to beat in terms of sheer quantity, though: $7 bought me four of the nostalgic grocery store pastries. The batter was light and crisp, almost like tempura, but frankly didn't add a lot in terms of flavor. The rolls got a little melty, especially the filling. I had forgotten how un-chocolatey Swiss Rolls actually are, which was a bit of a let-down. Still, I polished off one on my own since I was hungry, and it was the first thing I ordered. Pacing is important.
Deep-fried mac and cheese
I've been spoiled by restaurant versions of this dish. The ones I tried at the fair -- like most of these foods, you can find them at multiple vendors -- were okay. The mac and cheese smacked a bit of boxed mix, but the triangles ($8) were fried well. This particular order from Ron's Taco Shop came with a cup of ancho chipotle sauce, a considerable improvement. At this point, I probably would have chugged the spicy, smoky liquid on its own.
Hey, it's a vegetable! Kind of. (If you're feeling particularly virtuous, you could try seeking out the fried green beans.) I love pickles, and still my eyes bulged when I was handed a generously filled carton of fried chips ($7). Despite the slightly greasy batter, these were a relatively refreshing break from everything else I'd been eating. They also leaned salty, but that was probably all right considering how much I had been sweating out in the heat.
What do you know, another childhood favorite battered and thrown in the fryer. A sign at the stand promised I'd like it. And I did, I really did. My fried strawberry toaster pastry ($4) was especially enticing because of how much it resembled a beignet. Of course, this meant the whole thing was covered in a blizzard's worth of powdered sugar, which immediately affixed itself to every available surface of my phone and person. Still, the batter was fluffy and tender, not at all greasy, and then I'd get this sweet and slightly tart hit from the "fruit" filling. Approved.
I hope you won't accuse me of copping out with this one: Is it just too, well, normal? Is that why I liked it so much? (I once ruthlessly mocked a pulled pork sundae I saw advertised at a TGI Fridays in London, and now someone else is having the last laugh.) The parfait ($7 for a small at Porky's) looks like a sundae, but instead of ice cream and chocolate sauce and whatnot, you have mashed potatoes, pulled pork and barbecue sauce. It was mostly mashed potatoes -- nothing wrong with that in my book -- that were so smooth and creamy I'd rather not know what was in them. I desperately wanted to eat more, and not finishing this one was probably the most tragic exertion of willpower during the afternoon.
The State Fair of Virginia runs through Oct. 2 at the Meadow Event Park in Doswell, Va., just off of I-95 near Kings Dominion.