TOPSFIELD – It’s Thursday afternoon at the Topsfield Fair and our mission is to eat our way through the Food Court.
There are more than 100 options at America’s oldest fair. Most are disgustingly unhealthy, some are only moderately unhealthy, and a handful won’t cause heart palpitations.
I’m joined by Beth Bresnahan and Jim Wilson, the CEO and COO of Essex Media Group, The Item‘s parent company. We are more than up to the challenge.
“Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood,” said Satchel Paige, the legendary baseball player who was as well known for his colorful quotes as he was for his pitching talents.
But I take a drug to lower my cholesterol, so no worries. I’m ready to pig out. I survived the Houston Rodeo, which included deep-fried versions of every food known to man. How bad can this be? Bring on the fatty foods, STAT!
We resist the urge to start our day with a towering, awesome-looking Bacon-Cheeseburger-surrounded-by-Grilled-Cheese monstrosity, opting instead to try the more sensible choice: a quarter-pound chocolate-dipped bacon on a stick for $7 at Stick ‘Em Up, which amusingly is located next to the Swifty Swine Racing and Swimming Pigs HQ. We all agree it would be better without the chocolate. Meh!
Deep-fried Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich, also $7, awaits at the Great American Funnel Cake booth. Topped with a generous amount of powdered sugar, it’s underwhelming and too doughy. We each take a couple of bites and toss the rest in the trash.
Along the way, we bump into Noah Cappe, the host of “Carnival Eats,” the highest-rated show on the Cooking Channel, who is taping an episode at the fair. He is ridiculously skinny. How is that possible, given that he consumes god-forsaken amounts of fair food for a living?
“Duct tape,” he said, without missing a beat. “I started my day with a fried kettle corn ice cream sandwich, and I just finished a deep-fried taco.” Belch.
Cappe confirms he eats everything on the show.
“But I eat a minimum of every item. Four or five bites. With carnival food, the issue is putting the food down, which isn’t always easy” said the host, who also starred in “The Good Witch,” one of the Hallmark Channel’s finest achievements.
Cappe said the new season of “Carnival Eats” begins Oct. 26. The Topsfield Fair episode is likely to run in early 2018.
We continue our journey, seeking carbs. The gluten-free crinkle-cut German Fries, $8 and $10, served by North Reading resident Debbie Bennett, who is dressed like a St. Pauli Girl, look tasty. They are. One member of our trio, not Beth or me, dips his fries in vinegar. Unforgivable.
So much to sample, so little time and tummy: Home-cured pickles. Brisket sandwich and kugel. Cider and cider doughnuts. Fudge. Chomper’s “crunchy balls of goodness,” in both bacon-cheeseburger and chicken parm. Maple cotton candy. Corn dogs. Fried dough. The Gobbler, a turkey dinner in a sandwich that would feed four. Veggie tempura. Cream puffs and crepes. Corn on a cob on a stick. Deep-fried Twinkies and Oreos and Milky Ways. Oh, my.
The best meal? We agree it’s the Fish and Chips plate from TJ Greene, who operates a seasonal restaurant in Bennington, Vt., and is new to the fair. It’s a generous portion and a bargain at $10. The fish, Alaskan cod, is fresh, purchased that morning.
“I want to change fair food,” he said. “I grew up poor. My mom served fish sticks every Friday. I’ve been deep-frying since I was 8. When the fish is golden brown, you have a winner. White is not cooked enough; if it’s orange it’s cooked too much.”
He’s set up a little off the beaten path, near the entrance to the Rabbit Barn.
Of course, we’ve left room for dessert. Learned’s Apple Pie has been a fair favorite for 36 years. There’s a long line at the stand, folks eagerly waiting to devour Tawny Learned’s hot apple crisp, blueberry crisp and apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top at $6 and $9. It’s a family affair, her sister-in-law and daughter are helping this day, and Topsfield is the only fair they do. She’s in the medical field, and uses her vacation to prepare and serve her home-baked desserts. We try all three, and they’re all delish.
“Families come here and tell us, year after year, they come to the fair just to have our stuff. Last night a husband sat their baby on the counter. ‘My parents brought me here when I was this age, and now we’re doing it for our child.'” Veterans always eat free here, adds Tawny.
Ray Hashem is the biggest food vendor at the fair. He has 10 stands, most offering a variety of roasted vegetables paired with chicken or beef. He rolls up his sleeves and works alongside his assistants, which this day includes his daughter, Chantelle, an attorney who is taking time off from her job to help dear old dad. His son, a barber, and another daughter, a CVS pharmacist, also are helping out this week. Food is in the family’s genes: Ray’s dad worked for Anthony Athanas at the iconic Pier 4 restaurant in Boston. Ray, himself, at age 15, started with one wooden stand.
John Coulon, Topfield’s health agent, assures fairgoers that no matter what food they choose to eat, it’s safe.
“I do my rounds, once or twice a day, every day, to make sure all the food vendors are in compliance,” said Coulon, a lifelong Lynn resident who is working his twelfth fair.
“I start inspections the Monday before the fair opens, and I’m here, onsite, right through the end. The first three days, I talk with the vendors as they are setting up. The bulk of inspections take place Wednesday evening until the fair opens on Friday.”
Coulon says he hosts orientation meetings for food vendors the Wednesday and Thursday before opening day. State and federal public health inspectors “with very critical eyes” are here as well; generally they see no violations and if they do, they notify Coulon immediately.
“It’s been a number of years since I’ve had to close somebody down,” he adds. “Most vendors desire to achieve and maintain a high level of compliance.”
Videos by Ava Ludwig.