September 2020 would have marked the 29th year Amy Bradstreet and her husband have gone to the three-day Common Ground Fair in Unity. They typically spend all three days at the fair – in many years, it was their only vacation – and they have framed posters from the previous 28 fairs hanging in their home to prove it.
But the fair, which was supposed to start Friday, was canceled because of the pandemic, and this year the only way to attend is online, at the fair’s “first virtual celebration of rural living.”
“It feels a little weird to not be going, but we totally understand and think that’s the right call,” the Palermo resident said.
But Bradstreet can dream, can’t she? Specifically, she dreams of Pie Cones, her favorite food from the fair. As the name implies, the $9 treats look like ice cream cones, but they are stuffed with pie filling. The cones, Bradstreet explains, are crispy like a cracker or tortilla and, unlike a waffle cone, “not super sweet.” The fillings come in flavors such as apple, blueberry, and strawberry rhubarb. Bradstreet’s favorite is the pumpkin cheesecake cone, with maple syrup and whipped cream on top, an indulgence that was love at first bite.
“I remember thinking what a revelation it was,” Bradstreet said.
Bradstreet isn’t the only one pining for fair food favorites. We asked the Maine Twitterverse what they’re missing this year, and within five minutes our feed was filled with love notes to funnel cakes, corn dogs, fried Oreos, and Italian sausages smothered in grilled onions and peppers. (“Gut bombs,” one fan called them.)
“There is a vendor at the Windsor Fair that sells donuts the size of your face,” wrote @FrecklesNFrce. “I’ve missed them terribly this year.”
“Fried dough, corn chowder in a bread bowl, fried pickles, and maple cotton candy,” added @elflingqueen. “I just made myself sad and really hungry.”
The No. 1 fair food mentioned, however, was the Pie Cone from the Common Ground Fair.
Cone hoards at the gates
The inventor of that particular treat is Frances Walker, who lives in Freedom and has been making Pie Cones since the early 1990s. Her family – her son and daughter-in-law have taken over the business – has trademarked the name and now run two Pie Cone booths at the fair to keep up with the demand.
“You can hear them at the gate sometimes,” Walker said, referring to Pie Cone fans. “’Oh, I’ve come to get my Pie Cone.’”
The product is so labor intensive to make that it can take a year for the family to prepare for the fair. At times they’ve found themselves peeling pumpkins during snowstorms to freeze for the following September’s fair.
Walker – who also happens to be Freedom’s local health officer and predicted early on that the fair would be canceled – said the idea for Pie Cones sprang from the desire for an environmentally friendly slice of pie made with organic ingredients that could be served without a plate or utensils. The cone, she said, is made with half white flour, half whole wheat flour, and is seasoned with pie spices. It’s crisp and not too sweet, with a “cinnamon-y undertone,” she said: “It’s like a metaphor for a pie crust.”
Walker says that at home, her family eats Chinese food out of the cones “and it tastes pretty good.”
Walker won’t share her trade secrets. But if you are inclined to replicate a Pie Cone at home, she suggests using a crepe or even a waffle cone, if you like that sweeter taste, and loading it with pie filling.
Mitch Sowa, 36, grew up in Dixmont. Going to the Common Ground Fair was “a big thing when I was a kid, driving all the way down to Windsor.”
Now the fair is held in Unity, where he and his wife, Amy Niemczura-Sowa, live. The couple did a lot of fair hopping when they were dating, and now regularly attend four every year. Sowa has a favorite food at each.
The Blue Hill Fair: Donuts. “They’ve got a unique, homemade flavor,” Sowa said.
The Fryeburg Fair: Baked potatoes at the Kiwanis kiosk, which come with a choice of “upwards of 10 toppings,” Sowa said.
The Skowhegan Fair: French fries that are served in “literally a cardboard dog bowl,” Sowa said. “You can buy them in this bowl and then walk around for, like, an hour and just munch on fries.”
But his overall, No. 1 favorite fair food is the Common Ground Fair’s organic blooming onion, which sounds like an oxymoron – a healthful, organically grown onion that soaks up calories and fat from the oil in which it’s fried. But Sowa defends his choice, primarily by pointing out that it doesn’t give him heartburn or other “repercussions” like other fair foods do.
“They use some type of organic vegetable oil,” he said. “It sits really well in your stomach.”
Overall, Sowa prefers the “unique” food choices at the Common Ground Fair because they offer “a lot more variety. You have to go to some little corner of Maine if you didn’t get it at the fair.”
Like the deep-fried shiitake mushrooms from the Shiitake Fry stand, say, which Sowa says are “exceptionally good” – and lots of folks on Twitter agree. The mushrooms are grown in Rumford by Toshio Hashimoto, who has been selling them at the fair for almost 20 years.
Hashimoto came to the United States from Japan in 1977 and first grew shiitake mushrooms in his Boston bathroom. He dreamed of being a mushroom grower because “that’s my heritage.” In 1983 he bought a woodlot in Rumford, where he starting growing shiitake mushrooms in the woods. In 1989 he bought a house there, and he now grows the mushrooms on oak logs in a greenhouse.
The mushroom gig is just a hobby now; Hashimoto’s primary business is Toshi Mobile, a car repair shop that specializes in Japanese cars. At his peak as a mushroom grower, Hashimoto grew almost 2,000 pounds of mushrooms a year. He has cut that back to 500 to 600 pounds a year, selling about half of them at the fair, where he is one of the more popular vendors.
Virtual food (so…no calories?)
Some of the canceled fairs have come up with ways to help disappointed fair foodies get their fried dough fixes. The Blue Hill Fair, which usually takes place over Labor Day weekend, has been allowing food vendors to set up at the fairgrounds since July so would-be fair-goers can buy funnel cakes, lobster and crab rolls, jerk chicken, hot turkey sandwiches, cupcakes and French fries. These “Food at the Fair” weekends have been extremely popular: One family reported on the fair’s Facebook page that they had to wait two hours in line for jumbo doughnuts because so many people showed up to buy them.
The fair recently promoted a visit by the Ellsworth-based Melt food truck, which sells grilled cheese and other gooey sandwiches, by raffling off $20 in free food and a 2020 fair print. This weekend (Sept. 19 and 20), according to fair officials, could be the last Food at the Fair event, although they are considering adding one more week featuring a blooming onion booth.
The Farmington Fair is doing something similar, hosting food vendors selling fries and sausage sandwiches this weekend on the fairgrounds.
Other fairs are offering a virtual agricultural fair experience, with food in the mix. The Common Ground Fair will have food vendors participating in its online marketplace, and will stream classes on identifying apples and demonstrations on making sauerkraut and apple cider vinegar. The Fryeburg Fair, which is holding a virtual fair Oct. 4-11, will include food demonstrations, recipes from vendors, short videos about food vendors, and food challenges for viewers – along with fun non-food-related contests like a mooing competition and a handsome rooster show.
“People are missing the smells and the tastes” of the fair, said Jean Andrews, the craft, specialty food and expo superintendent for the Fryeburg Fair. “How can we try to re-create that in the home?”
If the cravings get too intense, some places offer fair food year-round. Surfside Restaurant in York
Beach makes three varieties of fried dough. Mulligan’s, a convenience store in Manchester, sells fried Oreos and fried dough bites. Je’s Neighborhood Store in Portland makes fried dough and fried Oreos.
Even restaurants are getting in on the act. Patio 03907 in Ogunquit has three desserts on its menu, all fair foods – and the chef plans to add more. Go to this casual spot on Main Street for fried Twinkies, fried dough and fried Oreos. “We’re forever running out of Twinkies,” said Tom Bussone, who runs the day-to-day operations and is the uncle of the restaurant’s owner, Tony Pelonzi.
“The parents are the ones that are eating the fried food, more than kids,” Bussone said, laughing. “The parents are having a throwback day to Twinkies. They get their fried Twinkie and they get their fried Oreo, and they let the kids eat the fried dough.”
That’s what fair food does. It makes us all kids at heart.
THE DOWNEASTERS LIME RICKEY
The Lime Rickey is a favorite at the Yarmouth Clam Festival. The drink has been sold as a fundraiser for the Downeasters Chorus for about 30 years. Members of the chorus were trying to come up with a new product to sell, according to the chorus’ George Feinberg, when one member recalled a drink he’d loved as a child at Coney Island in New York City called a Lime Rickey. He and other chorus members spent a summer experimenting, trying to reproduce that childhood joy. The result has been a Clam Festival favorite for many years. At the festival, the drink is made by dissolving 20 pounds of superfine sugar in a bucket of water, then adding a ladle of the resulting simple syrup to each drink. Here’s a scaled-down version. This might be good with a shot of tequila. Just sayin’.
Yield: 1 Lime Rickey
Juice of 1 lime
4 tablespoons simple syrup
Cold seltzer water (club soda), to taste
Ice, preferably small cubes
Cut the lime in half and squeeze the juice. Add the lime juice and the halved, juiced limes to a 16-ounce cup or glass. Add the simple syrup to the cup. Fill the glass with ice, then pour in the seltzer water. Tip into another 16-ounce glass to mix the liquids and set the halved limes on top.
DEEP-FRIED SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS
This recipe comes from Toshio Hashimoto of Rumford, who grows shiitake mushrooms and sells them at his popular Shiitake Fry stand at the Common Ground Fair.
Yield: serves 6
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 pound shiitake mushrooms, cleaned
1 ¼ cups milk
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus extra for seasoning
Pour the vegetable oil into a heavy medium pot to a depth of 2 inches and heat over medium heat until temperature registers 375 degrees F on a candy thermometer.
Meanwhile, trim off any tough stems from the shiitake mushrooms, then thickly slice the caps.
Whisk the egg, milk, flour and sea salt in a large bowl until the batter is smooth. Working in small batches, coat mushrooms in batter, drop them into hot oil one at a time, and deep-fry until golden brown, 3-4 minutes. Let drain on paper towels. Season with additional sea salt, if you like.
The Texas State Fair in Dallas was the first to offer this sinful treat. This recipe comes from “Fair Foods: The Most Popular and Offbeat Recipes from America’s State and County Fairs” by George Geary (Santa Monica Press, 2017). The recipe requires a Dutch oven, a candy thermometer and 6 skewers.
Makes 6 Twinkies
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup whole milk
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Confectioners sugar, for dusting
Skewer each Twinkie and place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Freeze for 2 hours. Meanwhile, prepare the batter: In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, milk, eggs and melted butter. Pour the combined wet ingredients into the flour mixture and blend just until smooth.
In a Dutch oven, heat 2-inches of canola oil over medium to 375 degrees F. Working 2 at a time, dip the frozen Twinkies into the batter until fully coated. Place in the hot oil, turning after a few seconds until all sides have turned light brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels, then dust with confectioners sugar.
FRED’S FRIED DOUGH
Usually at this time of year, Kyle McNair is hanging out in Portland’s Old Port late at night, after the bars close, with his food cart, Fred’s Fried Dough. The pandemic has kept him off the streets this year, but he agreed to share the fried dough recipe he uses at home so you don’t have to go without. McNair suggests topping the fried dough with confectioners sugar, cinnamon sugar, chocolate sauce, or even marinara sauce and cheese.
Makes 8 pieces
2 cups oil, for frying
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 drops vanilla extract
¾ cup lukewarm water
Heat 2 cups vegetable oil in a large pot on the stovetop to about 375 degrees F.
While the oil is heating, mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium-sized bowl. Mix in the butter and vanilla. Stir in the water until the dough is soft, then let it rest for about 15 minutes.
Divide the dough into 8 pieces and roll each piece into a 5-inch round. Fry the rounds one at a time in the heated oil (so that the oil doesn’t cool down) for 60 seconds on each side, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels before topping as desired.
First Parish Church in Yarmouth usually sells about 500 pies (cut into 7 slices each) during the three-day Yarmouth Clam Festival. The church offers 20 types of pie (strawberry-rhubarb is the biggest seller), all made with homemade crusts by the church’s army of pie bakers. This no-bake Chocolate Orange Pie is one of their most popular varieties.
Serves 6 to 8
6 ounces (1 cup) semisweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup milk
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 cup heavy cream, plus more for serving
1 (8-inch) graham cracker crust
Chocolate curls, for garnish
In a 1-quart glass bowl, heat the chocolate chips and milk in a microwave oven on high for 1 to 2 minutes, or until melted and smooth when stirred. Beat in the cream cheese and orange zest until smooth. Let cool.
Whip the 1 cup cream until stiff. Fold the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture, taking care not to deflate it. Spoon the filling into prepared crust. Freeze the pie until firm, about 4 hours. Just before serving it, garnish with dollops of whipped cream and chocolate curls.
DEMI PEABODY’S KETTLE CORN
This should have been Demi Peabody’s 40th year at the Fryeburg Fair. Instead, she’s headed for Florida. The Hiram resident is best known for her Hot Apple Buns topped with her secret sauce and ice cream, but in 1996 she became the first Fryeburg Fair vendor to start selling sweet-and-salty kettle corn. Peabody says her kettle corn is different from everyone else’s at the fair because she makes it in a 25-gallon cast iron pot. “Everyone else basically just buys one of these new fandangle machines made of stainless steel and they don’t even stir it because the machine does it for them,” she said. “And I don’t use a liquid sugar. I use raw sugar.” Her other (no longer a) secret: She applies the sugar immediately after the corn has popped, instead of stirring it into the hot oil. Her big batches require 4 cups of oil, 4 cups of popcorn, ¼ cup of salt and 3 cups of sugar. The recipe below is her attempt to scale it down for us. It may not be perfect, but she says you’ll probably have to tweak it anyway, since some people like their kettle corn a little sweeter, some a little saltier and getting it just right takes practice. “You’ve got to play with it,” she says.
1 tablespoon salt
¼ cup granulated sugar
In a 6-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat, pour in just enough oil to cover the bottom of the pot. Add the salt to the oil, then add enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pot in a single layer. Place the lid on the pot, and shake the pot vigorously every few seconds as the kernels pop. As soon as the kernels have nearly finished popping, remove the pot from the heat and pour the sugar over the popcorn. (Some of it will stick to the popcorn, and some will fall to the bottom of the pan.)