When it comes to satisfying midday hunger, downtown Jackson professionals have several choices. One can savor such tried-and-true Capitol Street stalwarts as The Elite and The Mayflower. The next day presents the option of checking out Congress Street’s new guard of Basil’s and Steve’s. Care to dine above downtown? Ride an elevator to the top of the Trustmark or Deposit Guaranty-Amsouth-Regions Building. Or, for a short window each fall, you can dine below downtown. Well, somewhat.
At the beginning of October, whether rounding the Waterworks Curve or descending The Stack, metro commuters notice a familiar augmentation of the Jackson skyline — a Ferris wheel. That’s right, the Mississippi State Fair is up amongst us.
But while the kids are in class, the fair waives admission fees from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. to entice those on their lunch break. And since the fair’s legendary battered and fried horn of plenty is only available for the limited run, one hand washes the other. Toothpicks, you’re on your own.
Well-respected members of our fair city, once removed from an arm’s length of a mouse or earshot of a speakerphone, have been known to throw gastrointestinal caution into the wind. In crossing Jefferson Street in pursuit of lunch during the fair’s fortnight, they leap into the arms of oil-seared bliss. My assignment is to observe said phenomenon.
On the menu
In the same way method actors might prepare for a role by riding in a squad car cruising the third shift or a semi smuggling Coors to Georgia, I needed to do some research. Thursday the 4th was the first full day of operation, and I intentionally didn’t eat breakfast.
Although in khakis and an open collar shirt, I fancied myself rather clever for choosing my new dark brown running shoes. But I wasn’t even in the gate before I wished I’d donned some running shorts. While most associate the fair with the first nip of a chill in the air, several times throughout the day, I would have to wipe the sweat from my sunglass lenses. But I wasn’t discouraged. Every time the inner arm my sleeves wicked away salt from my temples, I new it would be replenished tenfold through my esophagus.
I kicked off my own personal Lester Spellfest with a corn dog. Strangely enough, the most notable aspect of the dog was the stick. Imagine one of those giant straws from the golden arches, but it’s made of wood, and sharpened to a point. It seemed more suitable as vampire repellant than pronto pup utensil.
While many Mississippians associate chicken-on-a-stick with Penn’s or McPhail’s Chevron, Takum Outum of Pearl claims to be the originator. With a declaration like that, I had to go with them next. Recently a friend had asked, “How can you mess up fried chicken?” I responded that it can be bland. Takum Outum — whose version alternated poultry with potatoes and onions — passed that test tastily.
Having strolled past their vendor earlier, I knew I would conclude my trial meal with a fried Twinkie. I’d never heard of such and was eager to try the latest in the UK-imported practice of deep fried candy bars. For this, Hostess’ flagship is frozen, skewered, battered, fried and finished with powdered sugar. The end result is the turducken of confections: a crispy layer of funnel cake conceals sponge cake that houses melted icing. It is shamefully good, i.e., perfect for the fair.
Casual — and tasty — Friday
Based on the previous day’s experience, I staged my own Casual Friday. I traded in the long sleeves and pants for their shorter counterparts. The new wardrobe philosophy coupled with a merciful cloud cover made for much more enjoyable asphalt dining.
For observations, I tagged along with the Mississippi Gaming Commission’s Legal Division. They were conducting a mandatory staff meeting — at the fair. Attending Friday’s meeting were Trish Edwards, Martin Millette, Tom Mueller, Deanne Saltzman and Sharon Smith.
After initial browsing, the meeting came to order with a round of pronto pups. While it’s foot-long version is always tempting, the group went with the standard size. It best suits meeting/eating in stages. A nice touch at this particular stand was the application of mustard for you. And people say you can’t get good service these days.
To further assess the big picture of the subject at hand, the staff sauntered east. Despite the fact that many rides lay dormant and most barkers lacked their late night zeal, the meeting seemed to benefit morale already. We all got a chuckle from the vendor boasting salads. What says reckless abandon more than, “Can I get the vinaigrette on the side?”
After further walking — er, deliberation — Tom proposed a motion for the acquisition of smoked turkey legs. Initially there were no takers. But after watching him take a few big bites (above photo), the Flintstone-sized snack proved too tryptophantastic for Sharon to resist.
However, it seems the others were taking a hard stand on items that had not been submerged in boiling oil. And who can blame them? So as the assembled approached the border marked by the Mississippi Trademart, it was moved that they seek the closest Penn’s before heading back the other way.
You know, it is tough to look at a Penn’s menu and not think, “Yes, I’ll have all of those, please.” Martin chose their ace. You can’t go wrong with a chicken-on-a-stick and an order of fries. But Deanne and Trish did just as well by splitting the corrugated goodness that is fried pickles.
The first Friday lunch at the fair was definitely a hot spot. In retracing their steps, the team took turns stopping to chat with familiar folks. But the leisurely staggered progress did not distract from the mission. The goal was to rendezvous at the fried candy bar stand.
Equally intrigued by the new notion, Tom ordered a fried Twinkie. Admitting his pleasure, he later asked, “What’s that saying, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts?’” I concurred that batter, cake, sugar and grease are pretty dang fine on their own, let alone like this. But Deanne and Sharon may have won the prize with a batter-fried Snicker’s.
With the Legal Division’s mandatory staff meeting drawing to a close, I sought final thoughts about lunching at the fair. Trish divulged, “People watch[ing] is definitely one of the pleasures.” Sharon further mused that, “I always like to eat while I walk.”
Some suggested that they would also return at night. “[My] girlfriend wants to ride all the scary rides,” bemoaned Martin. And Deanne faced a similar inevitability, “My kids definitely have to play all the games.”
When asked about the prospects of a return lunch visit, Sharon deadpanned, “Depends on what the weather does next week.” Now, if my metabolism isn’t cursing the heavens and the Bromo-Seltzer sponsorship comes through, there might be a fried Snicker’s with my name all over it.