Bloomin’ Onions and Dippin’ Dots may have their fans, but when I think back on my childhood attending the Central Washington State Fair, it’s the Elephant Ears I miss.
The fragrance of cinnamon-topped hot dough mixed with eau de farm animals conjures up a dozen youthful autumns racing around 4-H projects and pony shows searching for the best vendor. I can still see myself digging through the contents of my fannypack — a mess of cherry ChapStik and Tilt-a-Whirl tickets — for $5 to buy my giant doughy treat. You’ve never seen a brace-faced smile as big as mine biting into that sugar-coated confection. I’d bet most fair-goers can recall a similar instance because the fair has always been as much about the food as the rides, maybe more so.
Which is why it’s no surprise the lengths fair organizers go to lure in good vendors with marquee dishes, if we can call them that. From deep fried candy bars to massive turkey legs, the need to outdo and out-fry, is a fair must. For South Carolina State Fair’s Director of Facility Operations Tim Wilson that means making sure his time-tested vendors come back year after year because, he says, “They tend to try to come up with some different things.”
For this year’s State Fair, Oct. 14-25, Wilson says his go-to concessionaires have three hot items: a Southern Belle burger (with pimento cheese and fried green tomato), bacon cinnamon rolls (self explanatory), and Sriracha Fire & Ice Kremes. That last one, Wilson says, features ice cream that’s “one milligram short of being butter” and it’s the work of Leonard Gats who has been in the fair food business since he was a child.
“My father started selling soft serve in 1967,” says Gats of his Ice Kreme Mill. Gats’ dad originally worked for the National Security Agency, but left when his affection for amusement parks got the better of him
“When I was a kid, I didn’t care for it,” Gats admits. “When school was out I had to go out on the road.”
But as an adult the job began to grow on him. “You are you’re own boss,” he says. “It’s a great lifestyle.”
It was particularly great in the 1980s when Gats and his wife, and later their children, would hit the fair circuit towing two trailers around the East Coast. Back then the circuit took place April through October. During the off season Gats and his wife would take part time jobs at Burger King and Sherwin Williams respectively. Today, however, following fairs is practically a year-round gig with more vendors and more competition.
That’s where his Sriracha fire & Ice Kreme comes in.
“We do the Minnesota State Fair and they’re always looking for something different,” Gats says. It was there he had his epiphany. During a break from dishing up his soft serve, Gats noticed a bottle of Sriracha in his trailer. “I wondered what it would taste like on ice cream,” he says. So Gats began testing it out. “Your first response is, ‘That’s not gonna work,” he says. But add in a few tortilla chips and some whipped cream, and you’ve got a salty sweet masterpiece. And one that’s gotten him advance publicity all along the circuit. But, best of all, he says, the fair-goers like it.
And that’s why Gats continues in the business. Yes, he says, his Sriracha-topped ice cream can get some dirty looks, and it’s certainly a far cry from the chocolate and vanilla flavors his father started the business with, but it’s the opportunity and encouragement to create new and different fair food that keeps Gats traveling from town to town.
“Working in an office, dealing with the same contractors and same faces, that’s not for me,” he says.
But don’t call him a carnie. “I’m not a gypsy. We’re not in the circus,” he says. He’s just a concession seller trying to put a little fire in your annual trip to the fair.
You can find the Sriracha Fire & Ice Kreme under the Sky Glider and at the South Gate at the S.C. State Fair.
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