This afternoon marked the beginning of the North Carolina State Fair, which means, among other things, the start of a lot of eating. I’ve got my appetite set for some of the fair’s newest foods. Take the Twinkie Log, for instance: a frozen Twinkie dipped in chocolate and rolled in coconut flakes (see related story). But more than likely, I’ll save most of my menu for some of the fair’s classic fare—the peanuts, ham biscuits, hot dogs, cotton candy, and ice cream that have been at the center of my attention every October in North Carolina for as far back as I can remember.
I know the foods well. I could probably even make my way to most of their booths with my eyes closed (barring a fall or two over other fair-goers). But when it comes to the folks and stories behind most of the dishes, I’m admittedly at a loss, which is why this year I’ve vowed not to sprint straight from biscuit to cake to hot dog and so on, and to slow down enough to put a name with a face and a food. Each day of the fair, which runs through Oct. 24, I’ll highlight a different vendor here on the Indy’s food blog, starting today with one of the fair’s booths that is guaranteed to make you pause: N. C. State’s Dairy Bar.
Gary Cartwright, Pilot Plant Coordinator at N.C. State’s dairy, says the line at the Dairy Bar often keeps people waiting 30 minutes or more. And Cartwright should know. He was an undergraduate at State and a member of the Food Science Club in 1978 when it first started to sell Howling Cow Ice Cream made by State’s Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Science in its Feldmeier Dairy Processing Lab. Before that, which Cartwright dates back to at least the 1940s, the club sold ice cream produced by others.
“People would ask if it was N.C. State ice cream, and we had to tell them no,” he says, adding that when the club started selling the school’s own variety in 1978, “it just exploded.” Cartwright credits the quality of the ingredients used for the ice cream’s popularity. Milk comes from cows at State’s veterinary school and its farm on Lake Wheeler Road, and the dairy uses only cane sugar in its mix. Megan Beckner, co-chair of the Food Science Club Dairy Bar Committee, which sells the ice cream, says that it’s a quality that folks have come to expect in the Dairy Bar’s approximately 12 standard flavors. “Everybody would cry if we got rid of Cherry Vanilla, for instance, or Butter Almond or Pecan Crunch,” she says. So those varieties are offered each year alongside a featured flavor. This year look for Campfire Delight—graham cracker flavored ice cream with dark chocolate pieces and a marshmallow swirl.
Though the Dairy Bar officially kicked off its season at the fair today, preparation in anticipation of the fair’s business began months earlier. “We start making it in late June to stockpile it,” Cartwright says of the ice cream. In years past, the Dairy Bar has gone through over 4,500 gallons during the fair’s 10 days of operation.
Ice cream sells for $4 a cup or cone, while milkshakes ring in at $5. If you don’t already, make the Dairy Bar a stop on your tour of the fair. You won’t regret the 30-minute line. And check back here tomorrow for another glimpse at a fine fair food.