The first thing you need to know about the Fall Festival is where it happens: Evansville, Indiana, which is the fattest town in America according to a 2011 Gallup poll. This little Midwestern metropolis, population 120,000 (the third-biggest city in Indiana), is tucked into a sweaty crevice of the Ohio River at the border between Kentucky and Illinois and has an obesity rate of 37.8 percent, well above the nation's average fattitude of 26.6 percent. Evansville gets the prize for most obese city in the most obese country on Earth, which is probably the most obese planet in the galaxy.
Being a statistically obese guy from Evansville, I was pretty stoked to hear the news about our newly accrued fame, especially with the city's 90th annual Fall Festival coming up, because that meant this would definitely be the most deliciously epic display of caloric atrocities to date.
The Fall Festival has been called “the largest street fair outside of Mardi Gras,” but rather than sex and debauchery, the focus here is on fried foods. Each year about 150 local non-profits, mostly churches and high school booster clubs, set up shop in makeshift concession stands and food trucks along Franklin Street, one of the city's few commercial avenues that isn't a business park or access road. For the first full week in October, four city blocks are transformed into the family-friendly epicenter of fat culture in the world, celebrating our heritage with local culinary innovations such as chicken fried bacon, fried cheesecake on a stick, and deep-fried Kool Aid.
I hadn't been to the Fall Festival in three years, but my saliva glands were already set a-flowing when I saw this year's Munchie Map. Like any great piece of literature, the Fall Festival Munchie Map offers something new every time you pick it up. The first time around, you'll notice the obvious absurdities: frozen jalapeno juice icees, bacon brownies, deep-fried dandelions. The second time around, you'll astutely observe that there's a long list of “deep fried” items in addition to the lengthy roster of simply “fried” offerings, like fried cookie dough, fried fruit pies, and fried pickles, though there is really no difference in the depth of frying. Later on, you'll start noticing the shit that just doesn't even make sense, like roasted baby bakers, pigeon poo, and painted pigs on a stick.
We started off pre-gaming at the Corner Bar, drinking down 40-ounce domestic drafts (“Slim Jims”) at three bucks apiece. (Evansville may be fat, but it’s also one of the cheapest places to live in the US.) My buddy Mike pulled out his phone and read aloud from the Fall Festival app that the local news station had created.
“Alright, so we've got alligator jerky, baked Arabian pastries, corn dogs, Pronto Pups, catfish nuggets, baked Pronto Pups, venison chili, bacon brownies, rib meat gumbo, bacon wrapped jalapenos, meat wad infernos, Kangaroo sandwiches, chocolate covered grapes, habanero ice cream, funnel cakes, nachos, BBQ turkey nachos, BBQ nachos with Grippos…”
Ahh, Grippachos. For the uninitiated, Grippos are an essential part of Evansville's culinary legacy. They're a brand of snacks made in Cincinatti, most known for their strangely soft barbecue-flavored chips, which contain enough trans fat and cayenne pepper to put down a guinea pig. They're commonly found in the pound-and-a-half box size, perfect for group gatherings or nervous-compulsive binge eating sessions. In this case, they're being used as seasoning for tortilla chips with melted cheese product and barbeque on top, hence the name: BBQ Grippachos.
Since we're locals, we ignored the guide and just approached the first thing that grabbed us, which happened to be a Methodist church selling Pronto Pups. These are essentially homemade corn dogs with darker, crispier batter, and they’re possibly the most popular thing at the Festival, with over a dozen different places to find them in both standard and foot-long varieties.
During peak feeding hours it's difficult to tell who's in line and who's just idling, waiting to wade through the stream of nervous old folks and hungry, plus-sized families bewildered at the wealth of options available to them. But when the crowds accumulate, the people-watching really gets good: plump grandmothers feeding their stroller-bound grandkids fried mac and cheese; siblings on a stoop fighting over the last nacho; a pretty hot girl shaking the remnants of her walking taco (chili in a bag of fried corn chips) down her throat. has nothing on the Fall Festival.
The next stop was the University of Southern Indiana Art Club's famous fried corn-on-the-cob booth, where some lady wearing a faded Minnie Mouse tall tee was picking up a take-home dinner. The teenage cashier hurried to load her foil-wrapped cobs into a paper sack while she tapped her ten-dollar bill. “Can you season 'em for me?” she asked, even though all but two of the eight she'd ordered were already wrapped up. When told about the condiments to the left, she just huffed to the side and poured a medley of three kinds of salt into a wad of napkins to create a miniature salt pod. Evansville is one of the few places where a woman pocketing napkin-packets of salt like a junkie doesn’t make one bat an eye. I ordered a cob for myself, sans salt. Think of the juiciest, deepest-kerneled log of corn you've ever sunk your teeth into, double it, and add a stick of butter. Delish.
Deep-fried candy bars were up next, which came as two fun-sized parcels of fried candy bars soaked in chocolate sauce, impaled by toothpicks. While nibbling away, a woman with long, ratty gray hair and a University of Kentucky shirt came up and asked if they were any good. Then she showed off her recently-procured giant turkey leg.
At that point, it was time for a breather, so we headed away from the hot, greasy air of the main strip and towards the for-profit section of the festival—the midway. This area was full of quickly-spinning carnival rides and various games of skill. They had the classics like the Starship 2000, a flying saucer bumping with a Pitbull inside that spins fast enough to lay sideways on the walls without falling; the Ring of Fire, a roller coaster made entirely out of a single upside-down loop; and less-extreme rides in the kids section, like a fire truck on a rotating arm ridden by a single creepy middle-aged dude in sunglasses.
None of these much appealed to me, although it was hard not to feed quarters into the little machines that try to push other quarters down to win a buck or two. Instead, we favored Rat Roulette.
Rat Roulette is exactly what it sounds like. Players place their bets on any of the number clusters from 1-3 to 97-100 around the booth. Then a small rat kept in a tin box is released to run like hell into the nearest numbered hole he can find on the spinning wheel. If the rat picks your number cluster, you win a stuffed Smurf doll. We all lost about 75 cents, the equivalent of about one pronto pup. As we left, we noticed a little girl who winced in pain every time the rat fell out of its box and had to scamper in a panic for shelter—not to worry, though, said the man in charge: they switch up the rats every four or five hours. Then they deep-fry and eat the rats.
Just kidding. Or am I?