Emily Bryant has an annual tradition involving powdered sugar and batter.
Every fall, Bryant makes a trek to a festival in North Georgia and indulges in a funnel cake.
"I missed a festival last weekend, so I had to come to this one," Bryant said while delicately holding a plastic plate covered in fried dough and sugar at the Georgia Mountain Fall Festival in Hiawassee. Her husband obediently sat beside her, offering to help finish the plate. "Fall festival, funnel cake. You eat turkey at Thanksgiving."
Such is the ubiquitous nature of foods at fairs and festivals. Funnel cakes, hot dogs and french fries are standard fare. But more often, patrons can indulge in culinary treats that can only be found at a specific festival.
Ron Day, a volunteer at the Hiawassee Fair and a member of the Towns County Lions Club, said trout is native to North Georgia, grown on a local fish farm, and their simple yet flavorful way of cooking it makes it a special addition to the food at the fair.
"We just use salt and pepper and we smoke it for about an hour," he said, pointing to the pickup-truck sized smokers behind the food booth. They also smoke ham and pork and have been using this tried-and-true method of preparation since the beginnings of the fair, when it was still housed in Towns County Elementary School in the 1950s.
It’s such a draw, said Hilda Thomason, general manager of the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds, that people have driven up from Atlanta just to buy dozens of the fish to take back home with them. One patron came over to the fair from Rome and bought 30 fish, Day said.
The fish is served individually or as a platter, with sides of cole slaw, baked beans, corn on the cob and bread. A word to the squeamish, however — the fish is served with the head — but they are more than willing to remove it for you, if you request.
The chefs in the smoked trout booth also cook up their own barbecue sauce for the pork sandwiches, which Day said rival any famed barbecue joint in the area.
Having fresh ingredients is key to any good food at the fair, Thomason said. Along with the locally-raised trout, the hamburgers at the fair are made of 100 percent ground round from a local supermarket and cooked fresh — not out of a freezer.
In front of the booth selling fried apple and peach pies, two lines snaked about 15 customers deep. But the wait was worth it for Connie Coker of Gainesville.
"You can’t come here without getting a fried apple pie," she said. "It doesn’t have to be apple, just a fried pie. It’s just good."
Her friend Mike Cutshaw, a minister at United Methodist Church in Cleveland, Tenn., is a self-proclaimed fair food "expert." Once he got his fried pie, Cutshaw said, "It was gone in, maybe, three steps. I don’t know about three bites, but it was about three steps."
Above all, he said, the fried pies are his favorite. Well, and the pork rinds.
"Those barbecue pork rinds were delicious. I had some of those, too," he said, although he admitted that when he comes to a fall festival, he goes directly to the sweet stuff. "Fried pies, funnel cakes."
But John King of Trolley Treats, who cooks the pies everyone is lining up for, won’t divulge the recipe for the filling or the sweet glaze that’s brushed on top as soon as the pies come out of the fryer.
"It’s a family secret," he said. But part of the secret to the pies’ taste, he admitted, was their freshness.
"A pie is good eaten within minutes of coming out of the fryer," he said. "It tastes better that way."
At another booth, members of the Towns County Lions Club, along with volunteers form the community, are serving up some more local favorites: Fried green tomatoes and sweet potato fries.
Ralph Grady, president of the Lions Club, is set up along the back wall of the booth, chopping tomatoes and frying them up fresh.
"It’s just fried green tomatoes, and the recipe we use is not a secret," he said. "You got meal and flour, pepper and you got garlic powder."
The booth originally opened as a hot wing booth, he said. But those didn’t sell so well. So Grady decided to add the fried green tomatoes to the menu to try and boost the sales of the wings.
"And then the red hots didn’t go," he said. "And then I dropped them."
Other food items Thomason enjoys at the fall festival are fresh churned ice cream, apple butter and fresh-squeezed apple cider. The only think she would like to add, she said, is roasted corn on the cob.
But, Thomason said, when it comes to food at a fall festival, you can’t go wrong with a funnel cake in all its powdered sugar glory.
And after years of experience stalking her favorite fair food, Bryant has learned the fine art of eating one, too.
"If you inhale powdered sugar, it will screw you up. And you can’t exhale while taking a bite, because then, you know, there goes the sugar," she said. "So you just can’t breathe while eating funnel cakes."