By Rachel Crumpler
People go to the North Carolina State Fair to eat. That’s a known fact.
“The fair is the biggest food scene in the state,” said Isaac B. Horton IV, co-owner of Oak City Fish and Chips, who has been going to the state fair since he was a baby and who was chosen as a food vendor last year. “There’s no other event in our state where there are so many vendors in one place and it’s the largest attended event in the state as well.”
With about 150 food and drink vendors present this year and 40-plus new food offerings, there is a multitude of options — some healthier than others.
The funnel cake, pizza and endless deep-fried concoctions are easy to find. The healthier options require a little more hunting amid the maze of vendors.
For me, finding food is even more complicated by my dairy, egg and peanut allergies.
If you dig a little deeper, you will find some healthier options waiting to be discovered and some that might even satisfy dietary restrictions too. NC Health News editor Rose Hoban and I did just that and you can too until the fair closes on Oct. 23.
More veggies, less meat
Becoming a food vendor at the state fair is a competitive process. Generally, only a couple of spots open up each year and there are many people eager to take them.
Last year, Tonga Ramseur, owner of Ethio-Indi Alkaline & Vegan Cuisine, got offered a spot and said it was like “hitting the lottery.” She became the first all-vegan vendor at the state fair and now she’s back for her second year, serving an all plant-based menu influenced by her Indian and Ethiopian roots.
Her menu includes burgers, chill “e” dogs, a steak and gravy platter, fried okra and more. She uses chickpea flour and grapeseed oil for frying and also offers gluten-free chickpea bread.
For Ramseur, who has eaten a vegan diet almost all of her life, it’s all about showing fairgoers that vegan food is delicious, combating the “bad rap” she said it sometimes gets.
“I will sacrifice whatever I have to sacrifice to help change that,” Ramseur said. “Because by doing that, we can save lives. We can keep people from having diabetes.”
Ramseur said her customers aren’t just vegan-eaters, and that’s a big win and testament to the flavor of her food. For example, she said a neighboring, non-vegan vendor ate at her food truck every day during last year’s state fair.
Especially at the fair, when people are often trying new food, she hopes she can introduce her dishes to many people, potentially prompting them to consider vegan options in their lifestyle going forward.
“I just love teaching people that this is how we should eat if we want to live longer because there’s too many preservatives, there’s too many hormones and pesticides and herbicides in everything,” Ramseur said.
Tips on navigating the fair food scene:
- Don’t go to the fair super hungry.
- Browse the foods offered and decide what you want to eat beforehand. Have kids pick out what treat(s) they want ahead of time with the understanding that they can’t go around the fair the whole time saying, “I want that too. I want that too.”
- Split food items with others. For example, two of you each eat half of that fried Oreo.
- Look for local vendors, which may have healthier options.
- Pro tip: You can actually bring your own food to the fair.
Additional healthier food options you might consider:
- Greek salad
- Jerk chicken / curry chicken
- Sweet potato
- Roasted corn
- Lamb shwarma/ grilled chicken pita sandwiches
Making the best of fried food
Fried food dominates at the fair. There’s deep-fried Oreos, piggy tails, bacon mac-n-cheese tacos and so much more.
Alice Ammerman, a professor in the Department of Nutrition at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, said frying is not necessarily as bad as people think if it’s in an unsaturated oil.
If choosing deep-fried food, Ammerman suggests choosing an item that has a healthier base, such as fried vegetables like zucchini or broccoli.
Oak City Fish and Chips’ lightly-battered fried lobster and salmon could also be a healthier fried option since seafood – especially salmon with its omega-3 fatty acids – is a healthy protein.
Alternatives to fried food
UNC Chapel Hill nutritionist Barry Popkin said that to find healthier alternatives, look for locally managed stands.
“You’ll find a lot of these run by churches or nonprofits,” he said. “These will be some of the regulars that are there every year but they won’t be a little stand, they will be the normal year round kind of buildings that have these church and other related groups in them.”
One of those is the booth managed by the Westover United Methodist Church, located in a permanent building near the waterfall — a spot they’ve occupied at the fair for decades. The church, which has been at the fair for about 75 years, is the last church operating as a vendor.
“I’ve had people try to talk me into deep frying Twinkies,” said Tommy Highsmith, who hasn’t given in to that suggestion in the more than five decades he’s been involved with the church’s state fair efforts.
He said they don’t have the space to do deep-fried food and besides, there are plenty of other vendors firing up the fryers.
Instead, the Raleigh church sells grilled hot dogs and hamburgers as well as barbecue and biscuits. Highsmith said the ham biscuits have been their “calling card” and this year they’ve added sausage biscuits.
Highsmith also added that they have some of the lowest prices on the fairgrounds. A foot-long hot dog sells for $4.25 and a ham biscuit is $3.
Tacos can also be a healthier option that isn’t fried.
Marcos Espindola, owner of Las Gringas, a food truck that offers authentic Mexican food, said 80 percent of his menu can be made vegetarian, vegan and gluten free.
Over the next couple of years, he expects that fair food is going to evolve to be less about the buzz of the latest, best fried food concoction, but instead people are going to seek what’s novel and clever.
“That’s what people want — something different,” he said.
Then, of course, there’s dessert
Another vegan- and food allergy-friendly vendor is Tropical Delights, which offers a variety of frozen fruit smoothies made without milk or yogurt. There’s no gluten either.
“We knew we didn’t want any dairy in it and we wanted it to be really just as fruity as possible,” said co-owner Reggie Burnette, who has been serving his smoothies at the N.C. State Fair for six years and in business for close to 30 years. “All the fruit — the strawberry, the mango, all that stuff — is pureed fruit and we just mix it and it tastes really good.”
A special way the smoothies can be served is inside a fresh pineapple
“So once we core it out, we’ll take the rings from the pineapple and we’ll put them on the outside so you can eat fresh pineapple, which is awesome to me,” Burnette said.
Burnette also sells vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free Dole Whip. This year, his truck will offer a Dole Pineapple Split, which will include Dole pineapple and raspberry whip in a pineapple bowl garnished with chocolate-covered pineapple slices, toasted coconut flakes and strawberries.
Navigating the fair with a food allergy
I’ll be honest, for years, I’ve avoided the fair as someone with food allergies. It’s intimidated me trying to eat at a place that has so much food and such a big crowd.
Even now, I still have some trepidation about it, but my tour of the food vendors left me more hopeful about the potential options for people with dietary restrictions like mine.
When I told Oak City Fish and Chips co-owner Horton I had food allergies and wanted to know what was in the batter of his fried seafood, he pulled out a laminated ingredient list for me to examine.
Brandon Herring from the North Carolina State Fair Press Office said food vendors are not required to make an ingredient list available to customers, though it’s a perk some may offer.
With the knowledge that many people have dietary restrictions or are adhering to plant-based diets, I saw several menus that listed gluten-free and vegan options. Vendors also expressed an understanding of the dangers of cross-contamination for people with allergies and seemed willing to take the necessary precautions when possible.
Advice for managing a food allergy at the fair:
- Always note your allergies when ordering and remind vendors that cross-contamination can be dangerous for you.
- Seek out places with shorter lines that might be less busy and able to take the time to answer your questions about ingredients and prepare your meal safely.
- Avoid fried food that is prone to cross-contamination within the fryer.
- Bring food from home that you can eat in case you don’t find any fair food that meets your needs or don’t want to assume the risk of an allergic reaction.
The bottom line is that the state fair is bursting with food options and, hopefully, you will find the healthier, and perhaps allergy-friendly, foods that will make your mouth water during this year’s 11-day extravaganza.
Rose Hoban contributed reporting to this story.