Like an iced doughnut fresh from the fat or a sleeve of Thin Mint cookies, the menu on the Mississippi State Fair midway causes even the most rigid calorie counters to lose their minds.
“It's the fair,” said Josie Bidwell, University of Mississippi Medical Center assistant professor of nursing, who admits to falling off the fair wagon herself. “How shocking can we be with food? What all can we fry?"
So if you're in danger of losing control when the foot-long corn dog taunts you and the deep-fried Oreos compete with the beer-battered burgers to clog your arteries, what are the healthier options that can still bring you joy?
Between now and the fair's Oct. 16 finale, go for the proteins, forgo the fried, and do what your kindergarten teacher told you: Share.
“The grilled corn is always an option that I go for, but just tell them you don't want it dipped in butter,” said Bidwell, a nurse practitioner whose focus is on lifestyle management, including nutrition and physical activity. “The butter actually hides the flavor of the corn.”
Just because you're talking turkey leg and corn doesn't mean it's always a healthy choice, cautions Dr. Joshua Mann, professor and chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine. “They would probably be better than a deep-fried Twinkie,” he said.
“If you eat the whole leg, that's a no-go. It's a cave man turkey leg. If that's your thing, get one and split it,” Bidwell said.
Mann agrees with Bidwell: Ban the butter and snub the salt.
“The issue is that on face value, a few of these things look reasonable. The problem is that it's impossible to know how much butter or salt is on them,” Mann said. “The safest thing is to assume that nothing there is good for you.”
Fairgoer Dawn Brown of Braxton admits the mustard-swabbed, foot-long Pronto Pup she ate last week at the fair isn't reasonable --- but then again, it's her reward for dropping 30 pounds.
“This is all that I'll eat,” said Brown, a surgical technician at St. Dominic Hospital. “Usually, I don't even come here at all. This (corn dog) is one time a year.”
Dawn Brown of Braxton celebrated her 30-pound weight loss with a foot-long Pronto Pup - the only "fair food" she consumed this year.
Bidwell is a regular guest host on the Mississippi Public Broadcasting radio show Southern Remedy. She co-runs the “Cook Right, Live Well” project, a community teaching kitchen for people with high blood pressure and diabetes.
She likes to visit the Mississippi Cattlemen's Association booth for a ribeye sandwich. “I ask for a whole-wheat bun, and I skip the liquid condiments,” she said. “The caramelized onions are really sweet and soft. It's a great replacement for mayo. And I'm fine with people picking a burger if it's good quality meat. Just skip the cheese and load it with veggies.”
If you must use condiments, “go with the mustard,” she said. “It's got salt, so it's not great for people with hypertension, but it's better than the fat in mayonnaise and the sugar in ketchup.”
A few other proteins can have some redeeming value. “You could probably get away with the shish-kabob,” Bidwell said. “It depends on what's on them. The chicken would be the healthier option, and it should be loaded down with peppers and onions.”
A gyro “might not be a terrible choice,” Bidwell said. “It's usually a grilled meat with veggies. Just use the sauce sparingly. Ask for it on the side.”
Surely there's something good about the deep-fried offerings other than their novelty and tastiness.
No. There's not, the experts say.
Latasha McGee of Pearl plans to share her funnel cake with a friend.
Latasha McGee of Pearl took her lunch hour from the state Department of Health to go with a coworker to the fair. Two words: funnel cake.
“I love it,” said McGee, a health information officer. “It's really sweet and good. I look for it every year.”
Mann considers most fair food unhealthy from the get-go - “and then they deep fry it,” he said.
“You have the Twinkies and the Oreos. They already have zero nutritional value,” Bidwell said. “They're full of sugar, full of fat, and full of chemicals that make the creamy parts creamy. And then you deep fry it.
“It's not going to do anybody any favors if they have high blood pressure or heart disease,” she said.
But what about the biscuit, the free biscuit, the Sunday dinner staple that tugs at your heart as soon as you cross the threshold of the front gate? The biscuit booth is run by the state Department of Agriculture and Commerce.
“So, the biscuit,” Bidwell opines. “You've got to enjoy life. I'm all about the free food. If that's what you look forward to every year at the fair, split one with somebody and make a better choice somewhere else. I'd rather see someone do that than eat the doughnut burger.”
Drink water or unsweet tea. Non-alcoholic daiquiris and slushes are “nothing but a ground-up popsicle,” Bidwell said.
“If you have to have a soda, pick a 12-ounce can of diet soda,” she said. “I'd rather eat my calories than waste them on a soda.”
Healthy peppers and onions make a grilled sausage a good choice at the Fair.
And share, even if it hurts, and even if you always get stuck with the smaller half.
That's what McGee did. “I can't eat all of this. It's not healthy,” she said.
“Some of the things I've seen people sell come in huge portions, like the funnel cakes and even the cotton candy,” Mann said. “Share with someone so that you won't eat it all yourself.”
Mann offers a suggestion that might not be so popular with fair foodies: Eat first. Especially, Mann said, if you're a diabetic, because a sugar or carb rush could make you acutely ill.
“My advice for health and to save money is to eat something healthy right before you go, and then splurge a little on something that you would enjoy. But don't make a meal of it,” Mann said. “If you eat before you go, you won't be as tempted to overeat.”
Back to Bidwell's confession. She partook of the Krispy Kreme hamburger, a meat patty between two glazed doughnuts. Some people think they can pass it off as healthy by shoving some lettuce and tomato between the glazed parts.
“I had one bite, just to see what it was all about,” Bidwell said. “People rave about it. It was good. I don't crave it, but I can see why people would like it.”