This year, healthy food options can be found at the NC State Fair

This year, healthy food options can be found at the NC State Fair

By Rachel Crumpler

People go to the North Carolina State Fair to eat. That’s a known fact. 

“The fair is the biggest food scene in the state,” said Isaac B. Horton IV, co-owner of Oak City Fish and Chips, who has been going to the state fair since he was a baby and who was chosen as a food vendor last year. “There’s no other event in our state where there are so many vendors in one place and it’s the largest attended event in the state as well.”

With about 150 food and drink vendors present this year and 40-plus new food offerings, there is a multitude of optionssome healthier than others.

The funnel cake, pizza and endless deep-fried concoctions are easy to find. The healthier options require a little more hunting amid the maze of vendors.

For me, finding food is even more complicated by my dairy, egg and peanut allergies.

If you dig a little deeper, you will find some healthier options waiting to be discovered and some that might even satisfy dietary restrictions too. NC Health News editor Rose Hoban and I did just that and you can too until the fair closes on Oct. 23.

More veggies, less meat

Becoming a food vendor at the state fair is a competitive process. Generally, only a couple of spots open up each year and there are many people eager to take them. 

Last year, Tonga Ramseur, owner of Ethio-Indi Alkaline & Vegan Cuisine, got offered a spot and said it was like “hitting the lottery.” She became the first all-vegan vendor at the state fair and now she’s back for her second year, serving an all plant-based menu influenced by her Indian and Ethiopian roots.

Her menu includes burgers, chill “e” dogs, a steak and gravy platter, fried okra and more. She  uses chickpea flour and grapeseed oil for frying and also offers gluten-free chickpea bread.

For Ramseur, who has eaten a vegan diet almost all of her life, it’s all about showing fairgoers that vegan food is delicious, combating the “bad rap” she said it sometimes gets.

“I will sacrifice whatever I have to sacrifice to help change that,” Ramseur said. “Because by doing that, we can save lives. We can keep people from having diabetes.”

Ramseur said her customers aren’t just vegan-eaters, and that’s a big win and testament to the flavor of her food. For example, she said a neighboring, non-vegan vendor ate at her food truck every day during last year’s state fair.

Especially at the fair, when people are often trying new food, she hopes she can introduce her dishes to many people, potentially prompting them to consider vegan options in their lifestyle going forward.

“I just love teaching people that this is how we should eat if we want to live longer because there’s too many preservatives, there’s too many hormones and pesticides and herbicides in everything,” Ramseur said.

Tips on navigating the fair food scene:

  • Don’t go to the fair super hungry.
  • Browse the foods offered and decide what you want to eat beforehand. Have kids pick out what treat(s) they want ahead of time with the understanding that they can’t go around the fair the whole time saying, “I want that too. I want that too.”
  • Split food items with others. For example, two of you each eat half of that fried Oreo.
  • Look for local vendors, which may have healthier options.
  • Pro tip: You can actually bring your own food to the fair. 

Additional healthier food options you might consider:

  • Greek salad
  • Jerk chicken / curry chicken
  • Sweet potato
  • Roasted corn
  • Kebabs
  • Lamb shwarma/ grilled chicken pita sandwiches

Making the best of fried food

Fried food dominates at the fair. There’s deep-fried Oreos, piggy tails, bacon mac-n-cheese tacos and so much more. 

Alice Ammerman, a professor in the Department of Nutrition at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, said frying is not necessarily as bad as people think if it’s in an unsaturated oil. 

If choosing deep-fried food, Ammerman suggests choosing an item that has a healthier base, such as fried vegetables like zucchini or broccoli. 

Oak City Fish and Chips’ lightly-battered fried lobster and salmon could also be a healthier fried option since seafood – especially salmon with its omega-3 fatty acids – is a healthy protein.

Alternatives to fried food

UNC Chapel Hill nutritionist Barry Popkin said that to find healthier alternatives, look for locally managed stands. 

“You’ll find a lot of these run by churches or nonprofits,” he said. “These will be some of the regulars that are there every year but they won’t be a little stand, they will be the normal year round kind of buildings that have these church and other related groups in them.” 

One of those is the booth managed by the Westover United Methodist Church, located in a permanent building near the waterfall — a spot they’ve occupied at the fair for decades. The church, which has been at the fair for about 75 years, is the last church operating as a vendor.

“I’ve had people try to talk me into deep frying Twinkies,” said Tommy Highsmith, who hasn’t given in to that suggestion in the more than five decades he’s been involved with the church’s state fair efforts. 

He said they don’t have the space to do deep-fried food and besides, there are plenty of other vendors firing up the fryers. 

Instead, the Raleigh church sells grilled hot dogs and hamburgers as well as barbecue and biscuits. Highsmith said the ham biscuits have been their “calling card” and this year they’ve added sausage biscuits.

Highsmith also added that they have some of the lowest prices on the fairgrounds. A foot-long hot dog sells for $4.25 and a ham biscuit is $3.

Tacos can also be a healthier option that isn’t fried. 

Marcos Espindola, owner of Las Gringas, a food truck that offers authentic Mexican food, said 80 percent of his menu can be made vegetarian, vegan and gluten free.

Over the next couple of years, he expects that fair food is going to evolve to be less about the buzz of the latest, best fried food concoction, but instead people are going to seek what’s novel and clever.

“That’s what people want — something different,” he said.

Then, of course, there’s dessert

Another vegan- and food allergy-friendly vendor is Tropical Delights, which offers a variety of frozen fruit smoothies made without milk or yogurt. There’s no gluten either. 

“We knew we didn’t want any dairy in it and we wanted it to be really just as fruity as possible,” said co-owner Reggie Burnette, who has been serving his smoothies at the N.C. State Fair for six years and in business for close to 30 years. “All the fruit — the strawberry, the mango, all that stuff — is pureed fruit and we just mix it and it tastes really good.”

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