When the Western Idaho Fair sets up shop in Garden City each year, it seems almost endless. Rows of brightly colored vendor booths stretch to the horizon, ferris wheels and roller coasters make ceaseless revolutions overhead and there's no limit to the number of deep-fried candy bars, turkey legs and elephant ears you can eat, except perhaps the limit of your stomach. But after 10 days, all of those mouthwatering foods pack up with the oversized plush bears and parts of The Zipper and move on to the next town, leaving fairgoers craving their favorite snacks for another year—or do they? While we could, BW trawled food row at the fair to find out.
Pronto Pup, with its three stands, famous corn dogs and fresh-squeezed lemonades, was an obvious first stop. It has been a bestseller at the fair for 76 years, and Manager Janet Caufield was only too happy to offer both a year-round schedule and a history lesson on the company that claims to have invented the corn dog in 1941, although "Texas will tell you they did it."
"There used to be a Pronto Pup store by the Egyptian Theatre, downtown on Main Street. Way back in the early '40s," said Caufield. "And then I think it was '98 or '99 that we had a store across from the Edwards Theater, and also at the Boise Towne Square Mall."
Those outposts are all closed now, and Caufield said the Boise-based Peterson family (which owns the Idaho franchise, and also operates a'Tavola Gourmet Marketplace, Cafe Shakespeare and more) has cut back on events. Pronto Pup currently hits just three each year: the Canyon County Fair, the Western Idaho Fair and Art in the Park, which is scheduled for Friday-Sunday, Sept. 7-9.
"Every once and a while you might find us at small events—we did the Boise Air Show last year, so you might find just the smaller trailer that we have at one of those events," she added.
Next up on the list: turkey legs. We struck gold with Nampa-based Smoked Turkey Legs, where owner Kyndal Fondren said her family-run trailer sets up at roughly 25 events year-round.
"We do the Hyde Park Street Fair, we do Kuna Days, we do the Boise Balloon Festival, we do the Melba Fourth of July—we're somewhere all of the time, almost," she said.
Although Fondren hawks the most turkey legs between May and October, she said she still supplies the public with hot, foil-wrapped snacks when snow drifts pile high at the McCall Winter Carnival, which will run from Friday-Sunday, Jan. 25-Feb. 3, 2019. Eager eaters can follow the trailer's Facebook page to keep abreast (pun intended) of its next stops.
With entrees behind us, we set our sights on dessert, starting with Idaho's most famous fair sweet: the Ice Cream Potato. The brainchild of Chef Lou of Westside Drive-In and the darling of national listicles on best state foods, the dessert looks like a baked potato, but is really vanilla ice cream rolled in cocoa powder, topped with whipped cream, nuts and more chocolate. Emily Bolton, the bookkeeper for Westside and Chef Lou's daughter, manned the booth and filled us in on a secret:
"You can get [Ice Cream Potatoes] year-round at Westside. We sell them there year-round and we sell them here, and you can rent this thing out for parties," she said, gesturing to the surrounding trailer. But when she tells this to customers who've made the pilgrimage to the fair specifically for the dessert, Bolton said she's often met with the response, "Nope, we only get them at the fair. It tastes different."
Funnel cakes are another fair staple, but an employee at the stand of the same name told BW her company sticks to the northwest fair circuit. Its next stop is the Washington State Fair in Puyallup, which runs for almost a month. Out of season, the stand sometimes makes an exception to pop up at Oktoberfest in Coeur d'Alene, which will run Friday-Saturday, Sept. 21-22.
It was a similar story at Elephant Ears, where cook/server Dillon Dalgarn said that although he isn't sure how many other local stops the stand makes each year, his full-time employer, the late-night Garden City diner Merritt's Family Restaurant, makes a similar dish year-round—they just call it a scone.
Dalgarn said the Merritt's dessert is "in more of a fluffy form, since it's a homemade dough and we make it every single day on our own. It does go in the fryer of course and whatnot, and they puff up real nice, real fluffy, but they still retain a very crispy edge, so it gives it that very 'fair' kind of feel to it."
Of course, it's impossible to fulfill a survey of fair food without hitting a spot that serves up everything deep-fried. We rounded out our trawl at Boise-based Colossal Onion Blossoms, where Manager Rebecca Pearson, whose father owns the stand, said their deep-fried candy bars (ranging from Idaho Spud Bars to Rice Krispy Treats) and onions can be found all over the northwest, at everything from shooting events in Emmett to biker rallies in Baker, Oregon, and the Sumpter, Oregon, flea markets.
"Basically anywhere that they're doing an event and they can hire booths like us," she said.
Despite the fact that all of the fair's food booths seem to pop up in other places, employees repeatedly mentioned the cachet of the fair, and the weight they place on the treat-yourself mentality that makes their offerings irresistible for 10 days each year.
When it comes to fairgoers, Pearson said, "They want something that's not around all the time."