The most popular foods, in case you haven't noticed, are on sticks or otherwise self-contained: corn dogs, cotton candy, funnel cakes, kebabs. Whether the kebabs or satay or gyros are authentic ethnic expressions is debatable ... but irrelevant. What's important is whether the food enables you to continue through the crowd, to the annoyance of your fellow fairgoers, since you are moving twice as slowly, lost in the eating and the trying not to get too much goop on your fingers.
This raises the next point: to lick or not to lick. Eating at the fair isn't as informal or private as eating naked in the tub, but the place is so crowded with people you may never see again that it goes all the way around the spectrum to become a jostling sort of private space. So it is rude to lick other people's fingers in public, no matter how good the barbecue sauce and whether you asked them or not.
But it isn't rude or even nasty to lick your own fingers, as long as you don't suck on them as though they were ribs. (Most finicky observers will forgive you if you remember to dab at your fingers afterward with a napkin. It is a token gesture toward polite public standards, in much the same way that dabbing at your nose post-sneeze will forgive the fact that you didn't reach your handkerchief in time.) And remember: Moist towelettes are your friends!
Some of the messier edibles at the fair would win a blue ribbon in the "What the Hell Were They Thinking?" division.
Corn on the cob, for example. It's a great idea. I mean, you can hardly get more all-American and nostalgic. They even leave the stem on it for a built-in handle, with peeled-back husks that not only add more character but also act as a grease guard. So you're not actually touching it. But still: Dredge a cob of corn in butter, and it's a walking disaster, a mobile grease bomb waiting to explode. Not only that, but who carries dental floss to the fair, and who wants to wait in line for the restroom to use it?
Second only to the uselessness of the stick is the myth of paper wrapping as an effective aid to ambulatory dining. The paper is strapped around burgers, burritos, wraps and cheese steaks, an illusion of control and containment that lasts about as long as it takes to step away from the booth and realize you've forgotten the napkins. The paper soaks through at the weakest moment, after you're lulled into thinking it's OK. That's when the filling reaches the pressure point and squeezes out against the sides. Let go with one hand to poke the insides back in and the precarious equilibrium you are carrying between your increasingly moist hands will erupt. Trust me: You will lose this battle unless you are willing to abandon all appearance of dignity and go for the three-bite blitz. It's ruthless and rude, but effective.
Those long, narrow bags of popcorn or peanuts? It's not possible to get the good stuff that settles at the bottom without ripping down the sides of the bag. And yet those half-popped kernels are a strong enticement for some of us. (I recently tried a new snack product, a little bag full of nothing but half-popped popcorn. It was damn good.) And if you've got two or more people sharing the bag, each attracted at the same moment to a different game booth, well, that popcorn vendor might just as well have taken your money, emptied the bag onto the ground, and saved everybody the trouble.
You gotta wonder, too, at the wisdom of selling this stuff -- be it too greasy, too salty, too sweet or some tantalizing combination thereof -- within five miles of some of the rides. That may be the real thrill, the disaster narrowly or not quite averted, the devil-may-care filling of the stomach and then defying one of the elementary laws of fairground physics: What goes down must come up.
But the strangest thing about all this is that most fairs conduct food competitions that encourage the production of truly wholesome foods. Hence the odd, but quintessential, conjunction of people stuffing their faces with mass-produced elephant-ear fritters -- how's that for a good, old-fashioned teeth rotter? -- while cruising by carefully baked, one-of-a-kind berry pies. Over in the produce pavilion, unblemished apples are carefully polished and set out like pearls on velvety cardboard flats, but you can't touch the fruit because it's just a display. You might be able to buy a bag of the apples on the last day of the fair, but there is no apple stand, though lord knows it would be a public service to offer something healthy in the midst of all this delicious trash.
And really, I find that a nice crisp apple is just the thing to clear the palate after a chili dog. ©