Saying the Coastal Carolina Fair is an overloaded sensory spectacle is like saying that deep fried Twinkies aren’t that bad for you. It’s eons from reality.
The reality of the fair, located in Ladson’s Exchange Park off of Hwy. 78, is at once more colorful and more wholesome than the average carnival-goer could ever begin to fathom. “Are we still in America?” laughs my photographer as we begin our trek across the expansive fair grounds. Every few feet there’s another attraction — bucket toss and balloon darts and water gun races, tilt a whirls and bumper boats, funnel cakes and fried pizza(!) and giant turkey legs creating a melange of inexplicable smells. “I’m not sure.”
The vendors call out, “girls, girls! Fresh squeezed lemonade, special $5 game, chance to win a prize!” It’s overcast and blustery, with the bright lights and neon banners creating a dizzying and almost dystopian Clockwork Orange effect. I wonder if we’ve mistakenly stumbled into a universe of the uncanny — it’s almost enough delightful disorientation to make you suddenly crave “Chester’s gators and tators!” Almost.
The concession stands all start to run together after a while, what with their fried offerings — you can truly fry anything, apparently — and silly names. The Netterfield family peanut stand is an outlier with its humble wooden table sans glitzy lettering. Fair stalwarts since the inaugural event in 1957, the Netterfields don’t need the gimmicks. They’ve got the roaster.
“This roaster is from 1926 — my dad bought it for $5 and it’s still running,” says second-generation concessionaire extraordinaire Butch Netterfield, pointing to a medium-sized silver keg that’s steadily churning out hot, shelled peanuts.
In 2016, Netterfield was the first food vendor to be inducted into the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA) Hall of Fame, which we think may be akin to the Oscars of the carnival world. “Some people tell us [our peanuts] are the only reason they come to the fair,” says Netterfield. Butch and his wife, Ann, travel almost year-round with this fair favorite, starting at the Florida State Fair in February and traveling across the Midwest in the summer, back down south to the Carolinas in the fall, ending their circuit in Tampa, where they reside.
When Netterfield was honored in 2016, the president of Thomas Carnival Inc. and OABA trustee John Hanschen said of the first time food inductee, “Netterfield revolutionized food concessions at fairs, taking what was a disconnected, often rag-tag collection of food stands and turning it into a distinctive segment of any fair, creating what is called the Food Court concept.” At the Coastal Carolina Fair, there are also Netterfield turkey leg, lemonade, corn dog, and cotton candy stands, with a Netterfield sponsored food court located in the middle of the fair. A veritable carny empire. “I’ve been doing this since I was a kid,” says Netterfield. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had, I almost feel guilty getting paid for it.”
As we walk past pretzel stands and Italian sausage joints and signs advertising more elephant ear iterations than I can wrap my mind around (elephant eclair??), I really start to crave some fries. Luckily, our next stop is DeAnna’s Sundaes, another family owned and operated concession biz that specializes in French fry loaded bowls. Savory sundaes, if you will.
Husband-wife team Shawna and Ryan Hagy run the sundae stand along with Ryan’s sister, Megan. This is one of a handful of stands in the DeAnna Concessions family, named after Ryan’s mom. “We’ve been in the business 25 years,” says Hagy. Like the Netterfields, Hagy says their fleet of food trucks travel together from Wisconsin to Illinois (where the Hagys are originally from) back down to the Carolinas and Florida. They retire to their homes in Melbourne, Fla. when the season comes to a close. Hagy explains that the team builds their own trailers: Megan does the graphics, Shawna helps install the LED lights, and Ryan and his father weld and do metalwork. “This is truly a family business.”
DeAnna’s has been featured on both the Food Network and the Cooking Channel’s Carnival Eats. The Hagy’s strawberry lemonade sweetcake sundae made the Food Network’s list of “50 Best Fair Foods” in every state, nudging out the rest of the Florida competitors with this “showstopper.” Made with Florida strawberries and a sweetcake (a pastry made from a biscuit-style dough and fried like a donut that eats like a flaky croissant) base, the treat is then coated with cinnamon sugar fried sweetcake pieces and drizzled with lemonade buttercream, finally topped with more strawberries and whipped cream.
The truck is better known for its savory offerings, though, like the “surf and turf” bowl that features a french fry base topped with cheese sauce, sour cream, steak, and shrimp. Or the barbecue pulled pork, cheese sauce, bacon, and French fry sundae.”It’s a great walking food,” says Hagy. The idea to combine all of this gut-busting deliciousness into one convenient vessel came about long ago, when the Hagy kids were young and would bop between the family fry stand and the steak sandwich stand during fairs. “When we were little it was too hard to carry both things around,” says Hagy. “So we just kind of threw them together.”
The Coastal Carolina Fair is open now through Sun. Nov. 4. Visit daily: Mon.-Thurs. 3-9 p.m., Fri. 3-10 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 12-9 p.m. Adult tickets start at $12 and kid tickets start at $7. Find more info about the fair at coastalcarolinafair.org.