FRIED DOUGH, ONE of the fair’s most popular food choices, could be found at several locations on the fairgrounds. There were lots of options for those who wanted to sample seasonal delicacies — like ribs, fudge and deep-fried Oreos — yearly at the Addison County Fair and Field Days last week.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
By MEGAN JAMES
NEW HAVEN — In the shade of a turning Ferris wheel, John Baker flips a rack of glistening ribs, the hair on his forearms singed off from years spent tending the grill.
Like many of the food stands at the Addison County Fair and Field Days, Baker’s is a permanent fixture, having fed carnivorous fair-goers every summer for the last 28 years. It was a popular stop for hungry visitors at Field Days last week.
For many, besides the competitions, exhibitions and the midway, Field Days is a chance to chuck the diet and indulge in Italian sausage, fried dough, caramel apples and frozen bananas dipped in chocolate rolled in nuts.
By Thursday, the third day of the five-day fair, Baker’s operation, Superchef’s Barbeque, has sold more than 1,100 pounds of pork. But he still has ham, ribs, beef, smoked turkey legs and cobs of corn lined up and sizzling on the cooker.
He talks about his business with a kind of karmic philosophy: he believes filling people with good food will make them happier, leading them in turn to treat other people more kindly.
“So we just keep the meat coming,” Baker says.
The smoked turkey leg looks like something out of medieval times. He serves the hulking drumstick unadorned, its base wrapped up in just a few napkins. The legs come to Baker already smoked, he says. His job is to stack them over medium heat, bring them up to temperature and then leave them there for a long, long time — about three to four hours.
“They might be a little crusty at the top, but inside they’ve softened up so you can almost suck the meat right off,” he says. “Barbeque cooking is start fast, finish slow.”
Years ago Baker graduated from culinary school in London, he says. Growing up in Indiana, he had wanted to be a professional chef but soon realized he didn’t like being restricted to the kitchen.
“I’m a country boy,” he says. “I like interacting with people and seeing green fields. So I got out of the kitchen and went into construction work for a while. Eventually I started doing this.”
He and his wife, Judy, now run a traveling business with both northern and southern routes. But his two favorite fairs happen to be in Vermont: Addison County’s and the Tunbridge World’s Fair.
“Addison is one of our good fairs,” Baker says. “It’s not, as far as money-making is concerned, a brilliant fair, but it’s more of a treat because these are good people in this area. We’ll always come back here. I’ll drop other things before I drop this.”
Baker passed over a slice of ham, dripping and warm.
“You don’t just throw any old meat onto the cooker,” he sys. “You have to understand how it’s going to react to the heat, understand the physics and thermodynamics and chemistry.”
Most ham would become salty after a few hours on the grill, Baker explains, so he uses pit ham, which has been desalinated and injected with a little extra water and glucose. He sears it, then lets it sit in indirect heat for six hours.
“When you bring them in close enough using indirect heat, you raise the temperature through the bones, but you’re slowly searing them and slowly simmering them in their own juice,” he says. “By the time they’ve got that nice glazed color on, they contain all their own heat, and you also get the flavor enrichment of the marrow.”
After the smoke of Baker’s grill and the heat of the midday sun, a stop at the Maple Barn for a 25-cent maple pop provides relief. Inside the barn, a woman stabs through sugar on snow, caramelized maple syrup locked over crushed ice, and children sip on Dixie cups spilling over with maple milk.
Over at Rosalie’s Zeppolis, two girls from Long Island, N.Y., sell deep-fried Oreos.
“You take the Oreo and you dip it in funnel cake mix, and then you throw it in the fryer and cook it like a zeppoli or funnel cake,” says Jaclyn Destefano, who has been deep-frying fair food her whole teen-age life. She works at Field Days every year.
For a dollar, she hands over a cookie-sized coin of fried dough sprinkled in powdered sugar. It is wrapped in a napkin to soak up the excess oil.
Inside the doughy skin, the chocolate part of the Oreo has softened just like it does when dipped in milk. But this is a greasy kind of soft, and the cream in the center is rich and super-sweet.
The Oreos sell well, the girls say, but they like their deep-fried cannoli better.
“It’s really the same process,” Destefano says. “You fill the cannoli shell with cream, dip it in the funnel cake mix and cook it in the oil.
“Pretty much you can deep-fry anything,” she adds.
Her younger helper, Nicole, agrees. Deep-fried pickles are her favorite.
Inside the Paquette building, a woman tastes Kim and Jim Colomb’s mystery fudge flavor, closing her eyes to try and make a better guess.
“When I forget that we needed coloring and we end up with a white batch, then I make a mystery flavor,” Kim explains.
Considering the Colombs make more than 50 different varieties of fudge at their home in Castleton, the possibilities seem endless.
Using the same base ingredients — butter, half-and-half, marshmallow, cocoa butter, extra-fine sugar and flavoring oils — they make blackberry, lime, root beer, sassafras, chocolate-covered cherry, banana split and French toast fudge. Kim has even tried apple pie and pumpkin pie fudge, complete with homemade pie crust.
For Field Days each year, the couple employs the help of their four children to make anywhere from 240 to 400 pounds of fudge. This year they started with 84 four-pound batches.
The Colombs take pride in their old-fashioned recipe, which was passed to their family from an old friend. A lot of fudge-makers use corn syrup these days instead of sugar, they say.
“You can tell by looking at it,” Jim says. “If it’s got a real shine to it, it’s probably made with corn syrup.”
Kim says she could never make that switch: “They say it’s much cheaper, but to me it’s not the same. It’s not homemade. We can make two batches in an hour. It takes a longer time, but at least it’s better quality.”
The woman tasting the mystery flavor still hasn’t guessed it. She’s tried pineapple, coconut, even lychee.
“Nobody’s gotten it right yet,” Jim says.
But there are still two fair days left.