Frozen, fried or on a stick, State Fair offers an assortment of tasty treats

Though taste is certainly a factor, many people are drawn to the novelty of food at the Ohio State Fair.

Deep-fry anything. Put it on a stick. It sells.

One of the most unusual and dangerous food attractions that the fair offers: “Dragon’s Breath.” The stand made its debut this year, and it attracts fairgoers not just for its snacking experience, but it’s dangerous appeal.

Large cereal puffs are flash-frozen in a bowl of liquid nitrogen and placed in a cup. Before the snack is handed off to the customer, the vendor reads off a list of specific instructions, such as using a skewer instead of touching food directly, and being sure to blow on the puff before eating it so the throat doesn’t get burned by the extreme cold.

When customers chew with their mouths open or speak while they are eating “dragon puffs,” vapor from the liquid nitrogen escapes from the nose and mouth, giving the illusion of breathing like a dragon.

“A lot of people are curious and come looking for us around the fair,” said Sean Friedhoff, 15, of Waynesville in Warren County. “You get to breathe smoke like a dragon, and a lot of people are intrigued by that.”

The treat is light and refreshingly cold, and the taste resembles a fruity cereal. But the experience of breathing like a dragon really makes it a “party in a cup,” Friedhoff said.

“It reminds me of oversized Cap’n Crunch,” said another employee, Aaron Soper, 31, of Hilliard. “It’s a neat novelty.”

The stand, near the Ferris wheel on the midway, is run by Martin’s Fine Food in Harveysburg in Warren County.

Dragon’s Breath isn’t the only unusual option at the State Fair. Other quirky foods include a burger on a doughnut bun and deep-fried buckeyes wrapped in bacon. The fair leaves the options open to the vendors’ imaginations.

The fair boasts nearly 200 food vendors, 27 categories of fried foods and 32 foods served on a stick.

One of the items is a stuffed waffle on a stick by Waffle Chix, a family-owned food truck based in Iowa that travels to fairs across the country. Customers can select savory or sweet for inside the waffle, with a variety of options that include chicken, cookie dough and Snickers.

“Just by putting it on a stick, it becomes fair food,” said 27-year-old vendor Spencer Taylor. “It’s convenient, and people can meander around the fair with it.”

For some, food is a just a bonus to go along with the the rides, shows and livestock. For others, it’s the best part of the day.

“I lost 80 pounds this year, and I won’t gain it all back in one day, but I’ll certainly gain some of it back today,” Maurice Jackson, 53, of the East Side, said with a laugh as he snacked on Buffalo tater tots. “I’m going to enjoy myself while I’m here. You only live once.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on August 1, 2018.

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For kids in 4-H, Ohio State Fair more than Ferris wheels and fried food

Most kids Levi Hartschuh’s age are spending their summers by the pool, on vacation, or, more likely at 7 a.m., sleeping.

But that’s when the 15-year-old’s day starts at the Ohio State Fair — a luxury in comparison with his typical wake-up call of 5 a.m. on his family’s farm in Crawford County.

Although the fair typically conjures images of fried food and Ferris wheels, one of the largest aspects of the fair focuses on its youngest participants. Hartschuh is among 17,000 youth exhibitors at the fair this year.

Levi was in a barn raising cattle long before, at age 9, he officially joined 4-H, a youth organization focused on leadership and practical skills. After his county fair in June, he and his family hitched up a trailer to tote his 2-year-old cows, Miracle and Millie, from north-central Ohio to Columbus for competitive showing, which includes being judged against a standard of the animal’s form and function.

“I have a passion for the beef industry,” he said. “There’s something about cow you can’t get with people. It can be a pain sometimes, but once they know you, they become your best friends.”

The fair’s top competitors will go on to the Sale of Champions on Sunday afternoon, where corporate buyers pay thousands of dollars for the winning livestock. Last year’s sales totaled $284,000. The top sale reeled in $50,000 for a grand-champion market beef steer, bought by Steven R. Rauch Inc., with $22,000 going to the young exhibitor.

The fair caps the money that an exhibitor receives from a buyer; the rest goes to the Youth Reserve Program that provides funds for scholarships, 4-H, Future Farmers of America and other programs.

The animals that don’t make the cut for the Sale of Champions return home with their exhibitors.

Kids from rural areas aren’t the only ones participating in the fair exhibitions. Despite the typical association of 4-H with livestock, it offers many other activities, such as photography and scrapbooking, that draw exhibitors from across the state.

“There are plenty of projects that don’t involve a lot of land. That’s a misconception,” said Kathrine Douglass, 15, a 4-H event youth assistant from Columbus’ West Side. “The whole point is to teach about leadership and responsibility.”

Kathrine participates in activities such as sewing and public speaking. Those competitions are judged on a presentation and interview.

Lillian Seibert, a 10-year-old from Auglaize County, took home the first-place prize in her category at her county fair for a scrapbook of her family’s vacation. Kids in non-livestock categories must win in their age group at their county fair to qualify for the state fair. In addition to scrapbooking, Lillian sews and shows steers.

Lillian comes from a long tradition of 4-H. Her father, uncles and great-grandfather all participated in the organization. Her grandmother, who taught her to sew, was a 4-H adviser for 30 years.

“It’s been great to see a new generation come up through 4-H,” said Patty Seibert, 61. “It gives you such a sense of accomplishment.”

For youths such as 13-year-old Allison Tuggle who want to own a farm someday, 4-H is a great hands-on experience. The judging, she said, is especially helpful because the judges give tips to improve showmanship, grooming and other animal-presentation skills.

“I like to play video games, and I’m just like a typical teenage girl,” the Lorain County resident said. “But I have my redneck side. It’s an awesome experience, and I love it.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 30, 2018.

Ohio State Fair stunt show goes back nine generations

Angelina Nock sized up the 70-foot pole planted in the Ohio State fairgrounds before shimmying her way to the top with monkey-like expertise.

She tempted the pole’s flexibility, intentionally waving it side to side as she dangled by one foot and whirled in a circle upside-down. State Fair patrons released a collective gasp when she plummeted face first down the pole, safely catching herself just before the ground.

The 26-year-old is far from a novice in stunt entertainment, and she is especially no stranger to the sway pole — it’s her family’s signature stunt from centuries ago.

The “Nerveless Nocks,” the Sarasota, Florida-based stunt family — who claim nine generations in the circus business — are descendants of Swiss Circus Family Nock, Switzerland’s first official circus, established in 1840.

“When I was growing up, I thought everyone’s family did this,” Angelina said. “Once I started school, I realized we were different.

“Their playground was in the schoolyard. My playground was this,” she said, motioning to the metal contraptions behind her.

The Nock family brought their act to the United States in 1954 when Eugene Nock Sr., Angelina’s grandfather, emigrated from Switzerland to join the Greatest Show on Earth alongside then-owners John and Henry Ringling North. Eugene and his wife, Aurelia, performed for years alongside one another, eventually bringing their son, Michelangelo, into the family business.

Now, the tale has come full circle for Michelangelo, 51, who is performing with his daughter at the Ohio State Fair through Aug. 5. Performances of The Nerveless Nocks All-American Stunt and Thrill Show are at 2, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and Sundays, and at 12:30, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

“It’s in our blood,” Michelangelo said. “I am blessed that my kids want to do it. I love performing with my daughter.”

The troupe also includes four additional stuntmen who are not family members. Despite the brutal July heat baking the metal bleachers, the performance draws an audience that fills three sets of bleachers.

“Those people are real daredevils,” said 11-year-old Andrea Lab from Dover after getting her photo taken with the Nocks. “I was scared they were going to fall. It was really cool.”

Stunts include performers doing motorcycle tricks in a metal globe, handstands on top of 10 stacked chairs, daring balancing acts in spinning wheels, and of course, the signature sway pole act.

“That act is always appealing,” Michelangelo said. “There are no safety nets. There are no crash pads. It is death defying. People want to see that risk.”

Among the awe-struck crowd is Aurelia Nock, 81, who despite her age, joined her family on the road to see her son and granddaughter perform every day at the State Fair.

There are currently four Nerveless Nock acts touring the country, each featuring about one to two family members.

“What we do might be unique, but we’re just like any other family,” Angelina said.

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 27, 2018.

Pickaway County Fairgrounds getting long-overdue makeover

CIRCLEVILLE — Just a month ago, the Pickaway County Fairgrounds were bustling with people slurping fresh-squeezed lemonade, munching on funnel cakes and watching 4-H kids lead their prized pigs across livestock barns.

Now, the fairgrounds look like a tornado tore through it. Half-demolished buildings and piles of scrap metal and cinderblock litter the grounds.

In order to make way for seven new buildings and facilities, Pickaway County is making an unusual effort to scrap almost everything for a completely new fairground. Demolition began this month and is slated to be completed at the end of July.

The 60-acre site, owned by the county and located in southeastern Circleville, has been long overdue for new buildings. Renovations aren’t sufficient, said Commissioner Harold “Champ” Henson. The existing buildings were old and poorly maintained with defects, including unsafe electrical wiring and water leaks.

The $13 million project has been in the works for about three years. The initial proposal was met with a “lukewarm” reaction, Henson said, because the county had been promising new fairgrounds for going on 10 years.

But now that the county is following through, there’s a lot of excitement and anticipation, Commissioner Jay Wippel said. Shovels hit the dirt at a groundbreaking ceremony the last day of the fair June 23.

Tensions were high last year between commissioners, the fair board and a nonprofit group called Pickaway Sportsman Inc. — which had been raising money for a decade with the intent to build a new indoor show arena and multipurpose building. The county and sportsman organization butted heads on issues such as control of the design, specific location on the grounds of certain buildings and naming rights. The group, which was largely made up of fair board members, said they would not help pay for the arenas and barns the commissioners approved. The county decided to pursue their plans regardless.

A shakeup in recent fair board elections brought in a new president — Von Cremeans — and several new members.

“A great deal of our success has been working with the new fair board,” Henson said. “They’ve been more than easy to work with and very cooperative.

County residents seem pleased by the upgrades, Henson said, since they understand the importance of the agriculture industry in a county that boasts a booming 4-H program and four FFA chapters. In addition to new features such as an amphitheater, there will be new livestock barns and an agricultural hall of fame.

“Agriculture is the number one industry in Pickaway County,” Cremeans said. “The community is really excited, and they’re getting more excited now that things are actually happening.”

So far, local businesses have pitched in about $2 million. The county hopes fundraising efforts will cover $5 million of the total $13 million cost. Demolition is being completed at no cost to the county. Darby Creek Excavating Inc., of Circleville, donated labor to demolish six structures. Those should be done within the next couple of weeks. The coliseum will be demolished in January.

Commissioners said the new fairgrounds facilities also will be a boost to the local economy because of the potential to rent out space for events, such as rodeos, boat shows and wedding receptions.

Construction of new buildings is expected to begin in October and will be completed in time for the next county fair, which is scheduled June 15-22, 2019.

Originally published in The Columbus Dispatch on July 27, 2018.

Bob the big boar shares fairgoers’ taste for treats

Bob the big boar is just like everyone else at the Ohio State Fair — he loves sweets.

Marsha Steel, Bob’s owner, used Oreo cookies to coax the 1,180-pound hog to his feet. When he rose with a labored grunt, Steel was dwarfed by the half-ton boar.

To celebrate the opening day of the 165th State Fair Wednesday, the boar was given his favorite treat: an intricately decorated, premium cake from a local bakery. The cake was adorned with pink and white flowers and sprinkles that resembled pearls, topped off with “165” in bright red icing.

Immediately, his tail started wagging, indicating his approval for the top-of-the-line cake. Bob won’t be cheated by generic baked goods, and he knows the difference between those and premium cakes, Steel said.

“Bob was born on the happiest side of the moon,” Steel, 53, said of the hog. “He’s a full-time job and he’s totally pampered, but he’s always so happy.”

Bob demolished the sheet cake within 10 minutes as about a dozen onlookers watched in amazement.

Raising champions is a family business: Steel and her husband have dominated the coveted big boar award at the fair for the past five years. Bob’s massive stature earned him the title of Ohio State Fair Buckeye Champion Big Boar in 2013. From 2014 until 2017, Steel’s husband, Kenneth Glander, showed another award-winning hog until 8-year-old Bob came out of retirement this year.

The couple from Germantown, near Dayton, maintains that while Bob might look like he’s fat, he’s quite fit and eats a balanced diet of corn and soybeans — when he’s not indulging on his cheat days. Steel said Bob will get a cake a day during the fair.

“It’s just one of those weird things you happen to run into at the fair,” said fair visitor Tom Muchmore, 66, of the Northwest Side. “You never know what you’re going to find. Today, it’s a giant pig eating a birthday cake.”

Bob was one of the many creatures — human and livestock alike — celebrating the first day of the State Fair. The balmy forecast provided a perfect backdrop to the opening day.

First-timers and seasoned veterans were all smiles as they milled through the midway, slurping fresh-squeezed lemonade and munching on turkey legs and other treats.

“I’ve been coming to the fair for 60 years,” said Craig Zimmerman, 68, who drove nearly two hours from Celina in western Ohio. “I grew up on a farm, so I really appreciate seeing the livestock and shows, and it’s fun to have the grandkids here now.”

The fair runs through Aug. 5, offering a multitude of attractions from rides to stunt shows to concert headliners.

“It’s really cool,” first-time fairgoer Boedy Greuey, an 11-year-old from Malta in Morgan County, said as he sat in shade near the midway with his family. “It’s really big, and I love all the animals and food.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 25, 2018.

Butter ‘Christmas Story’ sculptures to greet visitors as Ohio State Fair opens

Ohioans can expect to enjoy deep-fried food, thrills and live music as the Ohio State Fair kicks off Wednesday. The festivities, which run through Aug. 5 at 717 E. 17th Ave., include all the classic fan favorites, as well as new additions.

To honor Ohio’s 2,200 dairy farms, the butter cow has been an Ohio State Fair tradition since the early 1900s. This year, artists — including lead sculptors Paul Brooke and Alex Balz — spent more than 400 hours in the 46-degree cooler on the state fairgrounds re-creating scenes from the classic film “A Christmas Story” — using 2,200 pounds of butter. The American Dairy Association Mideast group decided to highlight the film, filmed in Cleveland in 1983, to celebrate its 35-year anniversary. The sculptures were unveiled Tuesday in the Dairy Products Building at the Ohio Expo Center.

“Watching ‘A Christmas Story’ is a holiday tradition for people across the country, and we’re proud that it’s one that started right here in Ohio,” Jenny Hubble, senior vice president of communications for the dairy association, said.

Highlights include Ralphie in his bunny costume, Randy in his snowsuit, a Christmas tree with working lights and — of course — the iconic leg lamp. The butter cow, which is sculpted annually, stands nearby, overlooking her calf, whose tongue is stuck to a pole alongside Flick, Ralphie’s friend who was triple-dog-dared to lick a frozen flagpole.

“It’s a pleasure to be a part of something so many people enjoy,” said Balz, who has sculpted the fair’s butter sculptures for 19 years. “It’s always a fun thing for artists and dairy farmers and the people who come to the fair.”

Fairgoers also can enjoy new live entertainment options. With the price of admission, guests will hear live music while milling through the fairgrounds, but they also will be treated to concerts and new stunt shows with acrobats.

“It’s that very Americana, old-school vintage thrill entertainment you would expect to see at fairs, but don’t always do,” said Alicia Shoults, the fair’s marketing and public relations director.

The fair is also launching an 11-episode podcast series, with an episode released per day. Each episode will focus on a different aspect of the fair, such as history or livestock.

Thrill-seekers can head over to the midway and enjoy about 70 rides, four of which are new. Amusements of America is the ride vendor once again, but the Fire Ball — a ride that broke apart on opening day of the fair in 2017, killing one and injuring several others, some seriously — will not be returning. The company said increased safety measures are in place this year.

Fairs also mean a plethora of fried food. There are 195 food vendors at this year’s fair, offering everything from classic powdered-sugar funnel cakes to burgers wrapped in a doughnut bun. There are 27 categories of food that are deep-fried.

“It’s a great tradition,” Shoults said. “We have a lot of things everyone loves, and some new and different things we’re excited about.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch July 24, 2018.

Lancaster reaches out to military through letter-box campaign

LANCASTER — Carla Schorr holds the key to the “mailbox” in Lancaster’s Veterans Square.

Every week, she kneels on the sidewalk and empties the box, gathering an overflowing, colorful bundle of letters. In her arms, she holds various shades of construction paper scribbled with crayon drawings, neat cursive phrases decorated with glitter and formally typed sentences on white computer paper from people who have dropped them off at the non-Postal Service box. Tucked inside each letter are expressions of gratitude to active-duty military members.

Schorr, 47, was born and raised in Lancaster, the birthplace of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman and a town that takes pride in patriotism. Passers-by strolling down Main Street can spot local military members’ faces displayed on “Hometown Heroes” banners hanging from streetlamps. Families and downtown workers flock to Veterans Square on a sunny day to eat lunch beside the black marble memorial and historic World War II cannon.

But Schorr wanted to do something to make an impact outside the town. Coming from a military family, she knows the hardships troops face when they are deployed overseas: loneliness, sadness, hopelessness.

She hoped to curb those negative feelings with “Operation: Letters to Soldiers.”

When the letter box debuted in April, she wasn’t expecting much. A couple hundred letters over a few months, if anything. But after a social media post, the community sprang to action. A local artist donated his time and talents to paint the box, decorated in a camouflage and American-flag design with two service members on the side. The owner of a local furniture company donated a protective coating.

Instead of leaving the letter box in just one place, Schorr decided it should travel during the academic year. She took it to local schools so students could correspond with military members.

In just four months, the box collected more than 1,600 letters.

“It means a lot to them knowing they’re being thought about and missed by total strangers,” Schorr said of service members.

The initiative costs nothing except time, Schorr said. All materials and labor were donated, and community members don’t even need a stamp.

Schorr, Rise Reality Co. and a nonprofit called Key to Giving teamed up with the United Service Organizations of Central and Southern Ohio, which places stamps on the letters and disperses them to U.S. military personnel around the globe.

“Just a simple message from a 7-year-old saying, ‘You’re my hero,’ means so much,” said Sue Ann Carroll, the community-relationships coordinator for USO of Central and Southern Ohio. “And the whole story of the ‘traveling mailbox’ really adds to that.”

Schorr has been contacted by communities across the country wanting a military mailbox. She said she plans to begin filling orders in the winter, charging about $500 for materials and shipping, with all proceeds going to veteran services.

She hopes people will leave return addresses on the letters so that kids can become “pen pals” with military members, with hopes they can meet someday.

The “mailbox” will hit the road again in August, visiting schools and other places in the community. By October, the box will need cosmetic work after seasonal sun damage to the paint, so Schorr is engaging Lancaster High School students by running a contest for the next design.

Lancaster Mayor David Scheffler, who is a Vietnam veteran, said he was not surprised by the patriotic city’s response to Operation: Letters to Soldiers.

“To see our community react in such a positive way is so heartwarming.”

Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on July 23, 2018.