It is the first thing I buy every year at the Three Rivers Festival's Junk Food Alley, and I never expect to have any epiphanies when I do.
But as I sauntered up to buy my large lemon shake-up at the booth next to – and operated by – the Hot Wisconsin Cheese booth, a sign caught my eye with a new spin on the old classic.
The sign boasted sweet tea and sweet tea lemonades. Being a lover of the classic Arnold Palmer mixture of the two beverages, my mouth watered even more as I imagined how good this tea would be shaken up with fresh lemons and sugar on a sweltering day.
As I placed my order, I asked LaTasha Laden of Fort Wayne, who was working the booth with her daughter, Chelsea, about this new find. Come to find out it wasn't anything new at all.
“We just never had a sign before,” LaTasha said.
Well they should have had one long ago because the drink was fabulous, and I had it refilled a couple of times during my journey through the deep-fried, calorie-laden treats that have made the alley the most popular part of the festival over the years.
LaTasha was one of the few folks working that day who were glad the weather was so hot because that drives her business.
“We went through five cases of lemons on Friday alone, and I can't imagine how many we will run through on a hot day like today,” she said.
The heat wasn't so appealing to folks like Jane Harris, who was frying up funnel cake after funnel cake as well as Oreos in The Best Around booth, or for Melissa Richardson and her daughter, Cali, who were frying funnel cakes, cheesecakes, Oreos and elephant ears in her trailer newly dubbed the “Freak Show of Fried Oddities.”
The Richardson family, which also includes husband John, simply called their booth Richardson's Funnel Cakes, but after the Cooking Channel's “Carnival Eats,” profiled Miranda's Everything Elephant Ear two years ago at her former spot at the TRF midway, the business has grown. And so have the treats she offers.
The freak show to try this year was a giant elephant ear called the Willie Nelson. It seemed fitting to try this variation, which can also be had on a funnel cake, given the Red-Headed Stranger has a concert set for Aug. 5 at Memorial Coliseum. The mix of toppings seemed to fit him as it is just what a person who enjoys some of the things Willie enjoys might find themselves craving.
This giant elephant ear – so big it is served on a pizza box lid – was topped with crumbled Oreos drizzled with a butter glaze, crumbled peanut butter cups topped with peanut butter sauce, strawberry or cherry pie filling and Lay's potato chips drizzled with caramel. And, yes, the elephant ear is coated with cinnamon and sugar or powdered sugar ... or both!
I had my gargantuan ear with double scoops of those toppings because why not? I loved the interplay when you got a hunk with chips and caramel mixed with the peanut buttery part next it, but the strawberry proved to be my favorite topping probably because it added a lighter fruit element to break up the overbearing sweetness going on.
The price was the best part of this decadent treat, which drew stares and had more than one person saying, “oh my god, look at that,” as I walked it down the row of picnic tables. A regular Willie Nelson elephant ear is $10 and was enough to feed a family and double toppings were only $5 more. Given a regular ear costs around $6 anywhere else, it was well worth it.
Harris, who is most affectionately known as “Mama Jane,” is the reason why folks like Richardson have been given the chance and support to take carnival food to the next level.
A veteran of the summer event schedule across the country, she has had 13 of her offerings profiled on “Carnival Eats” and two more are coming to the screen soon. She wouldn't tell me what those two treats are but hinted one will be quite popular with teenagers with red dust on their fingers as it is a play on one of their favorite spicy snacks.
That one is not at Junk Food Alley, but there is a new invention here that gets five-stars from me: a lemon-poppyseed funnel cake.
The funnel cake queen adds a little lemon and poppy seeds to her batter, fries it up beautifully as always and then tops it with her lemon glaze and even more seeds. That glaze is bright yellow so, Harris said, her employees don't mistake it, but I think the color also helped subconsciously got my mind thinking lemon because I got a burst in every bite.
I wouldn't change a thing about this treat but told Mama Jane I wished I had blueberries to go with it. Her eyes lit up and I could tell I got her mind working on another new concoction.
“I have done a blueberry topping before, too,” she said.
Standby still solid
Though I always look for the new at Junk Food Alley, sometimes it is just nice to reconnect with an old favorite, which took me to the Whistle Stop booth.
You can never go wrong with Hobo Potatoes and they have been a staple at the TRF for more than 15 years. Whistle Stop owner Bill Johnson has been part of the festival since 1994, and his family is rooted in the local festival scene doing 14 each year in the area. His brother, Tim, also runs the Timmy's BBQ stand next to his trailer.
Whistle Stop started with pizza in 1987 and eventually added gyros. The gyros helped Johnson to invent his popular cup of meat, potatoes and other goodies after seeing how popular topped fries and such were becoming at events.
“I figured, 'Hey, we got all the stuff already, all we need is potatoes,' ” he said while sitting behind his trailer in the shade slicing away at a box of sweet yellow onions. “Once we started doing them, they took off. Now we go through about 10 potatoes for every pita.”
The cooked potatoes and onions come in two sizes with steak, chicken or ground sausage. They can be topped with cheese sauce and/or ranch dressing, I got mine with all three meats – again, because why not? – and loved every morsel.
They aren't as refreshing as the tea-and-lemon shake-up on a hot day, but they are delicious. Take my advice and get a small because the meat and potatoes are filling.
And you have to leave room for an elephant ear or funnel cake.
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.