Each year, our editor treks out to the North Carolina State Fair, determined to find healthy food that’s also special enough to be good for the fair.
By Rose Hoban
People always laugh when I tell them, “I’m going to the state fair to find healthy food,” but I refuse to be discouraged in my annual quest.
Maybe that’s because every year I do manage to find things to eat at the N.C. State Fair that are enjoyable and that won’t require a week of dietary penance afterwards.
And it’s not just me looking for healthy alternatives. Reba Hill, who’s the superintendent for the food-preservation contests, said she’d love a booth where there’s healthier food.
“There’s heart trouble in my family, and we’re interested to bring down our blood pressure” she said. “It’d be nice to do it with food and not pills.”
One of the first places Hill could take a look this year would be at the La Farm Bakery truck, an outpost of French baking courtesy of the shop of the same name located in Cary.
It’s Lionel Vatinet’s second year at the state fair, but he’s had his truck for 16 years. In the past couple of years, he’s been able to source more flour from North Carolina, and his truck is placed right next to the wheat-growing exhibition.
Vatinet said that in France, where he’s from, good bakers tend to know the people who mill their flour, but that wasn’t available to him until about five years ago, when a mill opened in Asheville. Now Vatinet gets his flour ground in-state, including locally grown rye flour, which people on gluten-free diets can eat.
“We create the Piedmont whole wheat bread; it’s 70 percent whole wheat, all from North Carolina,” Vatinet said. “Last year, people came to know we had the Piedmont whole wheat BLT, with pimento cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato.”
Vatinet added that none of his offerings are fried.
Another non-fried treat are the ears of roasted corn available from many vendors around the fair.
Clayton native Ben Merrill, who’s been at the fair for 23 years, sources his corn from outside the state, as the height of the corn season is about over by the time the fair rolls around.
Merrill said he samples his corn raw to make sure it’s sweet enough to roast and sell.
“We refrigerate it, so the sugar doesn’t have a chance to convert to starch,” he said, offering up samples of raw kernels.
They really were sweet, almost sweet enough to pass up the cooking. But Merrill said they roast low and slow, in the husks.
He’s also a believer in eating less fried food and more veggies. He recently lost 60 pounds doing just that.
But Merrill also said dipping the corn in his butter might not be the worst thing. He had a researcher run an analysis on the butter.
“The way we dip it, it only ends up with four grams of fat,” he said. “So as far as the things to eat here, that ain’t bad.”
But even the frying might not be quite the nutritional boogeyman it’s cracked up to be, said Alice Ammerman, a nutritionist and instructor at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health.
She said recent dietary science has been de-emphasizing fat as the culprit in American diets, especially as people are using more vegetable oils, which are unsaturated fats.
“In the past, they used to use solid fat, like lard, for frying,” Ammerman said. “But most people are moving towards more liquid oil. Olive oil is the best, but any vegetable oil is reasonable.”
She also said Southern food has been getting love from nutritionists of late, especially country diets that emphasize vegetables, like sweet potatoes, cabbage slaw with vinegar or field peas.
“Collard greens and a little bit of fatback in them isn’t so bad if it gets you to eat the greens,” Ammerman said.
She’s been working up some recipes for things such as “Heart Healthy Hush Puppies” (see recipe, box), as recipes that won praise at the annual Kinston BBQ Festival last year. The recipe was developed as part of a community-wide intervention done in Lenoir County that resulted in improvements in dietary habits and drops in blood pressure, without the complaint that “those people” were insisting people eat cardboard.
“That’s what most of us are trying to emphasize … staying away from, is the sugar-sweetened beverages,” she said. “If you can, stay away from the sweet tea. I go for the unsweetened tea with some sweet tea mixed in.”
“Sometimes the sugar is so overpowering!” Ammerman said.
She speculated that a vendor selling juices cut with seltzer might do well.
Chris Saleh said he has people come to his Neomonde Bakery booth once they get desperate for something green and crunchy.
“A lot of the parents will have maybe one fried thing with their kids and then they’ll come over to us and say, ‘I’m so glad you’re here,’” said Saleh, who’s in the second generation of his family to be involved in the business.
He said folks thought his father, Sam, was crazy for opening up his first Neomonde booth at the fair six years ago.
“They didn’t know if we’d make money or not,” Saleh said. “You know, ‘People are coming for typical fair food,’ and all that. But year by year, we’ve really grown and accelerated the business here.”
Last year, the Salehs gave out stickers reading “I ate salad at the fair,” and Chris said there’s usually a line to get their kebabs, hummus plates and, yes, the salads.
He said they make a concession and serve French fries, something that’s not served at their restaurants. But this year, the Salehs created chick pea fries, made with cilantro and served with a hot pepper sauce.
They even have tabouleh made with quinoa, to accommodate those who avoid gluten in their diets.
“You really wouldn’t be able to tell,” he said.
But for those folks who want real traditional state fair treats, that means peanuts, said Missy Blanchard.
She and her Lillington-based family have been bringing boiled, roasted and in-shell peanuts to the state fair for 39 years in their wooden booth.
“The people that come, many of them look for us every year, especially for the boiled peanuts,” Blanchard said. Her booth sells both salted and unsalted.
“Not many people out here sell boiled peanuts. The people who come looking for those are very excited to see us. When we see them smiling from afar, we pretty much know they’re coming for the boiled peanuts.”
Ammerman said nuts have been getting big-time respect from nutritionists of late, and that weight-loss diets are emphasizing eating nuts as snacks.
“People are doing better on a larger amount of good-quality fat,” she said. “Things like nuts, they’ve got more satiety qualities; you stay satisfied longer. One of the reasons for that is that it slows the emptying from your stomach and you don’t get hungry again.”