sliced steak sandwich
The Butcher Boys offer up grilled steak, sliced thin, on a pita for a healthier meal at the Fair.

This is an update of an NCHN story from last year.

By Rose Hoban

Each year, you hear of what new “treat” is on offer at the North Carolina State Fair. This year is no different: The big offering is a Sloppy Joe served up on Krispy Kreme donuts instead of hamburger buns.

sliced steak sandwich
The Butcher Boys offer up grilled steak, sliced thin, on a pita for a healthier meal at the fair.

But what’s a person to do if they want to attend the state fair and actually eat something that won’t make a cardiologist hang his head and cry?

“It’s tough,” laughed Suzanne Havala-Hobbs, a UNC nutritionist who writes a diet and health column for the News and Observer.

“One of the best strategies is not to go to the fair hungry; eat dinner before you go,” Havala-Hobbs said. “You’re going to be less likely to cave into an impulsive choice.”

Havala-Hobbs pointed out that by some analyses, something as small as a deep-fried Oreo has more than 130 calories, most of it from fat and sugar. That could be close to 10 percent of the daily caloric intake for a woman: Hobbs said the target intake for a woman trying to maintain her weight is 1,500 to 1,800 calories; for a man, it’s 1,800 to 2,300.

“Some of those deep-fried onions can have as many as 1,200 calories,” Havala-Hobbs said.

It doesn’t have to be this way

North Carolina ranks 14th in the country in the rate of obese people, with more than two-thirds of North Carolina adults registering as overweight or obese. So it would be a good question as to why a state fair – where many of a state’s good qualities are on display – should be a place with such deplorable food choices.

Eating roasted corn
Nicole Alston gets her fill of some roasted corn on the first day of the state fair.

Some states have begun to address this disconnect head-on by inviting vendors offering healthier choices to sell at their fairs.

“It’s always been the case that we look for healthier options at the fair,” said Brienna Schutte, marketing manager for the Minnesota State Fair. “But we’ve made a larger effort for the past five years.”

Schutte said the Minnesota fair has several vendors who sell fresh fruits and vegetables and have gluten-free and vegetarian options and even sushi. One vendor went to New England to research lobster rolls and came back and tweaked it to create a walleye roll that Schutte said was very popular.

There’s even a tent where fairgoers can get a fresh made-to-order tossed salad, another with eggplant tacos – and one vendor who’s brought East African delicacies such as camel burgers.

“It’s actually quite good,” Schutte said of the camel. “It’s a lean, darker meat.”

She said the idea is to bring in a lot of variety so that anyone with any kind of preference can come to the fair and enjoy something.

“We survey people about the state fair, and food is the number-one reason people come,” Schutte said. “The ag component is strong, as well as the entertainment. But food is the number-one reason people say they come.

“Our new-foods announcement happens in mid-June, and it’s the most sought-after media story that we in the marketing department deal with on an annual basis.”

Minnesota is in the bottom third in national obesity rankings.

So you want to eat? Here are some tips.

Peanuts provide traditional and delicious treats; in particular, roasted peanuts like the ones offered by Don Skillman of Clayton.

antique peanut roasters
Don Skillman’s family has been bringing their century-old peanut roasters to the state fair since 1967.

“They’re dry roasted in the shell, no oil, no salt, no spices,” Skillman said while checking on the roast to see that the nuts were done right.

There’s nothing keeping an eater from craning his or her head over the counter and watching how the food is being prepared. The thing to do is to look for roasting and grilling over an open flame – rather than frying or cooking on a flat, oily grill – the way the Butcher Boys do with their steak and chicken.

Some vendors saw the need for healthier meals at the fair and decided to fill that niche – like Joe and Sam Saleh from Raleigh’s Neomonde Bakery, who started their stand four years ago with the intention of offering something healthier than fried fare.

Other vendors have had the same idea, like John the Greek and Strates Fine Foods, both offering Greek salads, gyros and kababs.

People who work at the fair and have to eat there daily for more than a week can attest to the wisdom of eating the kababs.

“I try to pace myself because we’re here longer than the 11 day run of the fair,” said Heather Overton, one of the press officers for the Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services. This year is Overton’s eighth fair, and she limits herself to one kind of “fair food” per day.

“John the Greek is one of my favorites,” she said. “His gyro and rice plate… that’s the very first fair food that I had this year. What’s crazy is that he had a line on the first day of the fair, people know what he serves is really good.”

The key to kebabs’ popularity is the fact that they’re roasted, not fried, cutting down on the potential calories.

Kebabs on a grill
Kababs roasted over an open grill are among the best healthier fare at the fair.

This year, kebab offerings at the fair include alligator, shark and shrimp (available at Chester’s Gators and Taters), along with the more traditional pork, chicken and steak. And for vegetarians, there’s a portobello mushroom kebab at John’s.

And don’t forget the emu (Homestead Emu Ranch) and ostrich (Raintree Farms) offerings, meats that are exotic but are also lower in fat. They’re being featured on a pita, in quesadillas and in tacos.

“Look for fresh foods as close to their natural state as possible, like an ear of corn,” Havala-Hobbs said, “foods where they’re mixed with fruits or vegetables or greens, even a caramel apple or corn on the cob, as long as it’s not swimming in butter.”

She said some people may decide there’s room for a fatty, sugary treat at the state fair, and if it’s really a once-a-year or infrequent event, it’s probably okay.

“But when it’s three, four times a week,” Havala-Hobbs said, “that’s a problem.”

Peanuts “Peanuts would be a good choice. They’re high in fiber. At the fair, they’re a better choice than others … even if they have a little sugar on them.”
Caramel Apples “If you’re eating an apple, you get fiber, nutrients and … you’re probably filling up on something that’s mostly healthy, even if there’s some caramel on it.”
Apple Cider “That’s a good alternative to sweet sodas.” This year, cider sellers have noted their apples have had a chlorine rinse to kill bacteria before they’re made into cider.
Apples “That’s your best bet.”
Popcorn “It’s better than a lot of choices at the fair.”
Roasted Corn “I see people walking around with ears of corn; but if it’s drenched in butter, that’s a problem. But in the scheme of things, relative to other fair food, even that’s not half bad.”
Baked Potatoes/Baked Sweet Potatoes “That’s a great choice, as long as you don’t load it up with lots of fatty toppings.”
Kebabs “Those are great. Look for food that includes mixtures of rice and vegetables or where the meat is in bits rather than a huge honking piece.”

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