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Monday, May 27, 2024

The First Full Week in October

It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with pronto pups and cotton candy… and I confess to have eaten more than my fair share of “extreme foods” – brain sandwiches, chocolate-covered crickets and deep-fried candy bars – in my years of traveling the circuit of food booths at the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival. Evansvillians know that eating our way down West Franklin Street during the first full week of October is an iconic experience that marks the end of summer much more so than Labor Day ever does.

But increasingly in this era of health-conscious eating, I’ve felt the need to stand in defense of the so-called cholesterol-drenched festival more than ever before. My theory is that the Fall Festival is a victim of “bad press,” which through the years has failed to place proper priority on items with more substance and soul than shock value. I say that because I find myself too often engaged with people who sneer at the festival, calling it a “grease fest.” While I’ve gorged myself on Texas tenderloins, fried corn fritters, funnel cakes and fudge – all washed down with a cold, refreshing Ski – the truth is that there is more to the Fall Festival dining experience than a menu of items fried in fat, covered in chocolate, and then dipped in gravy. To swear off the Fall Festival simply because you think – mistakenly – that it’s a precursor for a heart attack is to deprive yourself of not only all the fun food finds, but also an essential Evansville experience.

The latter point should not be underestimated. Now in its 86th year, the Fall Festival is about so much more than just the food. Over the course of six days, some 200,000 people descend on West Franklin Street to enjoy the carnival rides and an array of events, from the crowning of the festival king and queen to the amateur-hour talent contest. Parking can be a chore and the crowds can induce claustrophobia, but the sheer parade of people from all walks of life is part of the entertainment – an aspect of the festival that should be embraced, not shunned. Another nice benefit: All the food booths are manned by local non-profit organizations – churches, neighborhood associations, social service agencies, youth organizations, and such – that use the profits made at the Fall Festival to support the good work they do.

Still, it is about the food, which brings me back to my original point: Given that there are more than 125 food booths at the Fall Festival, there is a feast of options, a bountiful buffet from which to choose beyond the standard festival fare. It takes planning, patience, and a willing palette to discover the best of it, but here’s a guide – based on my many years of Fall Festival foraging – to get you started.

German Potato Salad
St. Peter’s United Church of Christ • Booth #100
I am starting off with one of my favorite and possibly one of the most underrated of all of the under-the-radar edibles at the Fall Festival. This is an addicting sweet-and-sour combination of vinegar, sugar, onions, and potatoes lovingly prepared from a traditional recipe by the ladies of St. Peter’s UCC. It comes in a large and small size depending on whether you consider it a main course or appetizer and since the weather is very unpredictable in early October, it can be ordered hot or cold. Although it can be a bit more refreshing served cold if the weather is warm, it has much more depth of flavor if they warm it up for you. Don’t miss out on this delicacy.

African Peanut Chicken
Unitarian Universalist Church • Booth #13
If you need proof that food can be an aphrodisiac, then make sure to buy a plate of the African Peanut Chicken from the good folks at the Unitarian Universalist Church booth. The recipe was concocted by a church member eager to impress a woman he long adored. One taste of this crock-pot delicacy and you’ll see why. The chicken is slow cooked in a smooth, creamy, and delicious African-style peanut-based sauce with a hint of heat. Once the chicken is falling-off-the-bone tender, it’s removed, shredded and mixed with the sauce, then served over a heaping portion of white rice. The dish is topped with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts for a nice crunchy contrast to the sauce. Those who have had the heavenly combination of peanut and chicken know how good it is, but if you are unsure, ask for a taste, but go ahead and have your money out because you’ll definitely want more.[pagebreak]

Jamaican Jerk Chicken
Bosse High School Band • Booth #91
When you have the right mix of spices and a good marinade, there’s no need for heavy sauce or thick, fatty, deep-fried breading. The band boosters at Bosse High School prove this theory to perfection with their Jamaican Jerk Chicken. They start with bite-sized pieces of dark-meat chicken (they know the best flavor and texture is in the dark meat) and then marinate it in classic Caribbean spices like cinnamon, garlic, and clove before grilling it for that unmistakable charred flavor. They serve the pieces in a cup with a toothpick to make it easy to eat while you hunt for your next dish.

Smoked Turkey Leg
Evansville Lutheran School • Booth #46
As if to prove that deep-frying isn’t the only cooking method known to West Siders, volunteers from the Evansville Lutheran School serve up a prehistoric-sized portion of smoked turkey leg. The staggering size is part of its beauty, but I’m not suggesting you eat the whole thing at once. In fact, I recommend not eating any of it–at least not at the festival. Instead, order your turkey leg “to go” when you’re ready to walk back to your car. The accommodating folks in the booth will pack it in a thick layer of foil so you can reheat in the oven later for killer leftovers. A thick layer of skin keeps moisture inside during its time in the hot box. Just peel off the skin to find succulent meat smoked to a beautiful, pink perfection. Shred it and add to a green salad; put it on a sandwich; or add it to store-bought vegetable stock and egg noodles for a quick and easy smoked turkey soup. It’s worth the effort.

Bavarian Spiced Almonds
United Caring Shelter • Booth #16
Sweet and crunchy, these nutty treats will satisfy your sugar craving, and because almonds are full of vitamin E, they’re also nutritious. To make the Bavarian spiced almonds, volunteers who support the shelter make sure the almonds are roasted just right, coated lightly in oil, and then tossed in a delicious cinnamon and sugar mixture until the dark exterior of the nuts sparkle with a thin layer of sugary goodness. They are served in folded parchment for easy carrying. It’s a dessert that’s healthy and delicious, so eat up!

Sunflower Bread with Strawberry Butter
Simpson United Methodist Church • Booth #53
This slightly dense, nutty bread made by the church bakers is as filling as it is delicious. Sunflower seeds sprinkled throughout add a depth of flavor, as well as vitamin E and polyunsaturated oils (the good kind!). Spread on a bit of the sweet and creamy strawberry butter; I dare anyone to resist! This is another item that’s worth ordering extra to take home. Quickly warm it in the microwave and enjoy with your morning coffee or a glass of juice; it’ll stick with you until lunch. If you ate all the strawberry butter in round one, try honey…It’s better for you anyway!

Portabella Fajita
Unitarian Universalist Church • Booth #13
The Unitarian Universalist Church outdoes itself again in the “alternative” festival food category with its soft-flour tortilla stuffed with Portabella mushrooms. Portabella mushrooms are a tasty and healthy meat alternative, containing as much potassium as a banana, as well as high levels of selenium and fiber. Church volunteers marinate the mushrooms in a secret seasoning and then grill them to perfection with sweet red peppers and onions. They’re made to order, so you can have yours piled high and topped with sour cream and hot sauce. It’s delicious, nutritious, and vegan-friendly.

Apple Cider Slushy
Old North Methodist Church • Booth #102
I know apple cider isn’t exactly “under the radar,” but I can’t do this piece without talking about it. Engelbrecht Orchards supplies the fresh cider made from locally grown apples to many of the booths at the Fall Festival. Some like it hot and some like it chilled straight from the popular, mini jugs, but Old North Methodist Church puts a fun spin on it with a cider slushy. The icy concoction is served in an insulated Styrofoam cup to keep it frozen even during one of our typical Indiana summer heat waves. The benefit of a slushy made with Engelbrecht cider is that it’s fresh and unpasteurized. (Pasteurization deadens the flavor and destroys naturally occurring nutrients like flavoniods, which are cancer-fighting antioxidants.) Some booths sell cider that isn’t locally produced, so look for the Engelbrecht label.[pagebreak]

Crawfish Etouffee & Shrimp Creole
German Township Volunteer Fire Department Boosters • Booth #23
During my taste tour of the festival last year, volunteers who staffed the German Township Boosters booth were out of control, but in that good sort of way. When I inquired as to why they feature Cajun/Creole food, one particularly boisterous booster shot back that it was inspired by the city’s German heritage. I’m no historian, but I do know the Cajuns were connected to the French. But who cares about history when you’re facing a choice between Crawfish Etouffee or Shrimp Creole? The source for these dishes are the cooks at The Feed Mill Restaurant in Morganfield, Ky., and coming soon to Poseyville, Ind., where you can sample these menu items year-round. The etouffee is a roux-based (classic Cajun thickening agent made from flour and butter) dish with the addition of the “holy trinity” of aromatic vegetables: onions, celery, and peppers. In French, etouffee means “to smother” and this delicious sauce does exactly that to chunks of tender crawfish. The Shrimp Creole also uses the same vegetable trio as the Crawfish Etouffee but it forgoes the roux for a tomato-based sauce with garlic and shrimp. Each is served over white rice with a kick that will clear your sinuses.

Buffalo Burger
Community of Christ Church • Booth #117
Even with all of the delicious, creative, and healthy alternatives, some people just want a burger. It’s a classic American festival food, but most people don’t think about their options. Those in the know eat buffalo. It has all the meaty flavor of beef but is much leaner and healthier. Buffalo has less fat per serving than beef, chicken and even some fish, like halibut. This lean meat is also endorsed by the American Heart Association, which says buffalo is part of a heart healthy diet. And, you’d never know from the taste it’s not beef. Several booths serve buffalo burgers, but I buy mine from the Community of Christ volunteers who know how to flip ‘em, grill ‘em, and dress ‘em just right.

Corn on the Cob
University of Southern Indiana Art Club • Booth #38
I grill a pretty mean corn on the cob in the peak season of late summer when the best Indiana corn is at its fullest flavor, but mine never seems to be as good as the golden, buttery ears stuck on thick skewers and served up by the University of Southern Indiana Art Club. Served piping hot, it’s the kind of sweet corn that makes you glad to be a Hoosier. It took me years to try it, given my attitude of “How good could corn on the cob really be?” But now it’s a major player on my Fall Festival roster. Sure, it’s a vegetable packed with some beneficial vitamins and antioxidants, but to me, this is the real candy corn.

Fresh Fruit Haystacks
Alpha Sigma Alpha Sorority • Booth #104
I’m sure the last thing on the minds of most Fall Festival goers is a bowl of fresh fruit, but the Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority has found a clever way to re-package it with a nice twist on the classic festival food called the haystack. Instead of the traditional corn chips topped with chili, cheese, and sour cream, these women have turned the haystack figuratively upside down, making theirs with grapes, strawberries and pineapple, topped with shredded coconut. If that lineup of ingredients is too healthy for you, they’ll toss in some mini marshmallows.

Smoked Pork Chop Sandwich
Wish Upon A Star • Booth #1
I always finish my weeklong Fall Festival eating extravaganza with a smoked pork chop sandwich from Wish Upon A Star. The lure? It’s both terrifically tasty and incredibly messy. The secret to its perfection starts at the source: Fresh cuts of bone-in pork from Dewig Meats in Haubstadt, Ind. They’re slowly smoked until the meat is practically falling off the bone and permeated with sublime smoke flavor. The delectable, juicy meat is served between two slices of rye bread, wrapped in parchment and foil. Pickle and onion are optional, but not necessary since the smoked pork is perfect on its own. Be warned, though, that the pork is still so juicy that it will drip down your shirt. If manners are more important than the ecstasy of eating, ask for an order to go, sans the bread, and dig into it at home. It’ll be the perfect way to end your Evansville epicurean adventure.

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