Chocolate-covered bacon makes fair debut

Food on a stick means kabobs on the grill, ice cream bars on the run, caramel apples for Halloween. You know where we’re going with this, right?.

Fair-weather fans crave oddball food during this time of year, and that can mean collecting sticks during all meal courses. The lines don’t begin and end at the Pronto Pup stand.

Food-on-a-stick menus are getting fatter, embracing cotton candy and hot dogs to deep-fried Oreos and chunks of cheese. Expect more than three dozen choices when the Wisconsin State Fair opens Aug. 6 in West Allis, and the most outrageous combo will come from Aaron Fidder, executive chef at the Machine Shed in Pewaukee.

A bold assertion? Hah!

Aaron’s restaurant is known for hearty portions of comfort food and from-scratch cooking, not fussy entrée names or uncommon ingredients. A one-pound chicken liver dinner and smoked turkey reubens are about as unconventional as it gets.

The Machine Shed looks and feels like a shrine to the Midwest farmer, and the homage extends to the gift shop, where one corner of merchandise is all about bacon. In the inventory are bacon-flavored toothpicks, mints, gumballs and lollipops (dubbed “man bait”). They surround “bacon 24/7” T-shirts, bandages that look like bacon strips, bacon-scented air fresheners, wallets and lunchboxes with bacon patterns.

Still with me?

The Machine Shed loves bacon, so why wouldn’t Aaron include it in food-on-a-stick experiments? For one week, co-workers were taste testers for his inventive combinations.

“My belly just kind of aches when I think about that week,” says Erin Zylka, the dining room manager. Restaurant guests also sampled the finalists.

At the end, the chef had two winners.

One: fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a stick. They will be dipped into pancake batter (“I add a little Sprite, to lighten it up,” Aaron says), then dunked into hot oil. “Like a jelly doughnut,” he explains, and $3 each.

Two: chocolate-covered bacon on a stick, served frozen, two strips for $3. The combo, although unprecedented at the Wisconsin State Fair, has shown up elsewhere. Aaron tried a dozen bacon-chocolate matches before deciding on milk chocolate over hardwood-smoked, honey-cured bacon.

“A ganache chocolate was too bitter,” he explains. “The real key is adding a little bit of sea salt to the chocolate at the end.”

“I love chocolate, and I love bacon, but I just can’t come to peace with bringing the two together,” admits Erin. I figured it would be the same with me, until taking my first nibble.

The tug between sugar and salt was attractive. No sign of greasiness. No chewiness. No brittleness, despite the freezing.

So another novelty is born, and 20,000 stick-impaled slices of chocolate-drenched bacon will make their way to West Allis this month.

Next year? Aaron says his top contenders, so far, are deep-fried cheeseburgers (with lettuce) and boston cream pie. Stay tuned.

Readers, e-mail me a state fair memory (100 words or less) by Aug. 4 and you could win two tickets to this year’s Wisconsin State Fair. Type “state fair” in the subject line. Winners will be notified Aug. 5 and essays published at www.roadstraveled.com.

The six Machine Shed restaurants include one at I-94 and Hwy. 164, Pewaukee. Others are in Appleton; Davenport and Des Moines, Iowa; Rockford, Ill.; and Lake Elmo, Minn. For more: www.machineshed.com.

This year’s Wisconsin State Fair is Aug. 6-16 at Wisconsin State Fair Park, 640 S. 84th St., West Allis. For more: www.wistatefair.com, 800-884-FAIR.

The Central Wisconsin State Fair is Sept. 2-6 at 513 E. 17th St., Marshfield. For more: www.centralwisconsinstatefair.com, 715-387-1261.

The Iowa State Fair is Aug. 13-23 at East 30th Street and East University Avenue, Des Moines. For more: www.iowastatefair.org, 800-545-FAIR.

The Illinois State Fair is Aug. 14-23 at 801 E. Sangamon Ave., Springfield. For more: www.agr.state.il.us.isf, 217-782-6661.

The Upper Peninsula State Fair is Aug. 18-23 at 2401 12th Ave. North, Escanaba, Mich. For more: www.michigan.gov,upsf, 906-786-4011.

The Michigan State Fair is Aug. 28 to Sept. 7 at 1120 W. State Fair Ave., Detroit. For more: www.michigan.gov/mistatefair, 313-369-8250.

The Minnesota State Fair is Aug. 27 to Sept. 7 at 1265 N. Snelling Ave., St. Paul. For more: www.mnstatefair.org, 651-288-4400.

About 50 kinds of food are served on sticks during the Iowa State Fair. Newcomers include chocolate-covered peanut butter rounds, chocolate-covered key lime rounds, frozen s’mores and carmellows (a trio of marshmallows under caramel coating).

Among the more unusual items: salad-on-a-stick and fudge puppies (waffles covered with chocolate, topped with whipped cream).

Regardless of which fair you favor, seek out “State Fair: The Great Minnesota Get-Together” ($25, Minnesota Historical Society Press), a colorful and clever photo book by Susan Lambert Miller of Minneapolis. It’s a treasure, from odd-looking vegetables and charming animals to spinning carnival rides and preoccupied people.

The photographer injects humor and tenderness into her work. Also priceless is Minnesota folklorist Lorna Landvik’s forward, which concisely relays a few touching tales about the populace who patronize the state’s fair.

Example: “Yesterday I become citizen, and today I am here to the State Fair to practice being not only American but Minnesota American,” a 38-year-old immigrant explains. “For long time, I sit on bench, watching great parade of fellow citizens walk by. Some wear paper pickle hats and carry yardsticks (what they are measuring, I do not know).”

Or this, from a 79-year-old fair fan of midway rides: “When I see old guys sitting in the beer gardens or shuffling around Heritage Square, I want to holler, hey bud, take a ride! Lose your breath! Forget about gravity – being upside-down is a great way to look at the world!”

If either excerpt produces a chuckle, you’ll love this book.