The media’s obsession with deep-fried weird foods reflects a society fixated on consumption

The last few days has seen this year’s two-day cycle of stories about deep-fried food at state fairs.  For the past several years, virtually all national and much local coverage of state fairs has reduced to a gee-whiz feature on some new recipe to dip in batter and then deep-fry an unexpected common food or, as is often the case, food product.  

This year’s batter-dipped-and-deep-fried morsel is deep fried Kool-Aid”; last year it was deep fried beer. 

Some other foods that have been given the deep fried treatment at state fairs in recent years include cookie dough, butter, a banana split, peanut-butter-jelly-and-banana sandwich, pork chop, margarita, Twinkies (giving new life to the Twinkie defense: “I got indigestion, so I killed them”), cheese steak, corn on the cob, Klondike Bars (what would you do?), Snickers bar, Oreos, Girl Scout cookies, avocados and fresh peaches.  Perhaps the most Byzantine concoction is to deep fry two donuts with a piece of chicken sandwiched between them!!! 

Many of these food products come from the kitchen of a 300-pound food entrepreneur named Charlie Boghosian who sets up food booths at 400 state fairs and other festivals throughout the year.

To a large degree, the media has replaced coverage of state fairs with coverage of other types of large summer gatherings such as music festivals.  And yet that one round of national and local news stories on state fairs perseveres, but now it’s always on the same topic: deep-fried food. 

Nothing about 4H contests, butter sculpting, auto races, hoe-downs, horse shows, cowboy and agricultural exhibitions, amusement park rides, petting zoos, penny arcades, local bands, parades, craft sales, baking competitions or any of the other stuff I remember from the last state fair I attended some 25 years ago.   Beyond what the fair offers, there are all kinds of ways the media could cover state fairs on the national level, including noting long-term trends, i.e., that they are smaller and less important than they used to be, and to a large degree offer a homogeneity of entertainments, in part thanks to national vendors such as Charlie Boghosian. 

But no trend stories, either.  It’s all about the deep-fried food.

The media covers each year’s deep-fried fancy with a combination of prurient voyeurism and accident-gawking, all delivered with the kind of irony that says, “I’m both kidding and not kidding.” 

All of the articles assume that these foods are popular without question and take it for granted that we now associate summer fairs with deep-fried weird food.  Few speculate as to why, and those who do all contrast the eating of the deep-fried fancy with some virtuous ideal of food consumption. Some examples:

  • “Many, though, relish in the experience of sinking their teeth into something so utterly unhealthy in complete rebellion against doctors’ orders and societal pressures to eat fresh vegetables and low-fat foods.”
  • “In a nation where every meal can sometimes seem a celebratory indulgence, the State Fair is a chance for Americans to drop all pretence of restraint and really make pigs of themselves.”
  • “But there’s something really unsettling about a food that consists of taking a chemically flavored powder and adding more and more unhealthy layers around it. Am I crazy? Have I been watching too much Jamie Oliver?”

In the last case, the writer’s worry about the health implications of consuming deep-fried Kool-Aid becomes a symbol of her own assumed nutritional elitism, which takes the bite out of her scolding;. Am I crazy? Have I been watching too much Jamie Oliver? After questioning the healthiness of it all, she challenges her credentials to pose such a question since she’s a heath nut who watches Jamie Oliver.  The anti-elitist (and therefore American) joys of anti-nutrition are suggested in one unspoken belch of subtext.

What’s most interesting is that all of these comments are variations on the “guilty pleasure” theme which dominates advertising for high-end junk food and desserts.  In this case, the guilty pleasure is slumming at the fair. 

For both sophisticated dark chocolate and down-market deep-fried Twinkies, advertising and media coverage sell the same concept, “guilty pleasure.”  For so-called diet food products, the theme morphs into “guiltless pleasure,” but the underlying thought process is the same.  Whether you feel like crap or are having a great time, you deserve to have something to eat.   Even if it does make you feel a little guilty.  After all, guilt is just another emotion that the Great American Instant Gratification Machine can help you assuage through consumption—perhaps some shopping, and maybe a little something more to eat.

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