If Jim Ritzman has learned anything from his years spent running a food stand at the Nebraska State Fair, it's that people will happily eat anything on a stick — and lots of it.
From his bright blue Banana Man stand at the fairgrounds, he serves a variety of decadent, diet-busting treats on a stick, including chocolate-covered frozen bananas and deep-fat-fried Twinkies.
This year, he's offering a new snack: cream-filled, battered-covered, deep-fried chocolate cupcakes on a stick.
“These will be a hit,” said Ritzman, who lives in Lincoln. “At the fair, you gotta put everything on a stick.”
Indulging in all manner of meats and sweets on a stick is part of the fun for many visitors at the state fair, which begins its 11-day run Friday in Grand Island. Peaches, pork chops, steak and Snickers bars are among the handheld treats awaiting fans.
Interest in food on a stick isn't limited to fairs and festivals. Food blogs, online recipe sites and photo-sharing social networks like Pinterest are filled with items like meat-and-veggie kebabs, shrimp skewers, fruity ice pops, Asian-style satay and frosted cake pops.
Food vendors, fair officials and others say it's a trend that'll stick around.
Jaime Parr, the fair's facilities director, said fairgoers will find a variety of concession options that go beyond caramel apples, corn dogs and other traditional foods on a stick. Approximately half of the 70 food vendors are offering something on a stick, she said.
Among the popular snacks returning this year are peaches on a stick. Dipped in funnel cake batter, then fried until golden brown, they taste like peach cobbler, Parr said.
“I think people get excited to try something you can't get at the grocery store,” she said.
While many of the goodies are a dieter's nightmare, there are a few choices for those who want something healthier, but still on a stick, including fresh strawberries.
Most fairgoers, though, tend to leave their diets at home, said Ritzman, whose battered and deep-fried chocolate cupcakes are among five new foods on a stick at this year's fair.
He freezes them first so the creamy filling stays cool as the cupcakes sizzle in hot oil. The result is a rich, chocolaty treat with a delicious contrast of warm and cool, he said.
Those in the mood for something meaty while strolling the midway can stop by Ron Neseth's Pig in a Bag food stand for moink balls on a stick.
Neseth, who lives in the Grand Island area, said the dish features beef and pork meatballs, hence the name moink for “moo” and “oink.” A bamboo skewer holds five of the homemade, oven-baked meatballs, which are covered in bacon. They're heated in a smoker and glazed with a tomato-based barbecue sauce that his wife, Cecilia, makes from scratch.
“It's smoky, sweet and salty,” Neseth said of the dish. “We don't want it to be a novelty. We want it to be a main food option.”
For home cooks, food on a stick can be an option anytime.
Quick, portable and customizable, it's suitable for casual meals, parties, picnics or backyard barbecues. Many supermarkets sell wood and metal skewers, and you can find plastic food picks and frilly toothpicks in a variety of colors at party-supply stores.
Making food on a stick at home takes just a few basic tools and simple steps, said Gene Cammarota, chef-instructor at Iowa Western Community College's culinary arts program. Practically any ingredient can be used, and it suits a variety of cooking methods
“You don't necessarily have to fry everything,” Cammarota said. “You can do teriyaki-marinated shrimp, chicken or beef cooked in the oven or outside on the grill.”
But when you crave fair favorites like deep-fried candy bars and want to make them at home, he suggests the following tips:
Freeze candy bars before frying to keep them from melting in the hot oil. Before frying, lightly coat them in powdered sugar to help the batter stick. You can make a tempura batter or use pancake, waffle or funnel cake mix.
Use a cooking oil with a high smoke point like canola or peanut oil. Let it reach 325 degrees before adding your food. Drop a tiny bit of batter into the oil to test if it's hot enough.
Select skewers strong enough to hold your food and long enough for you to grasp the end while cooking. Make sure all sides of the food are exposed to the oil for even cooking. Cooking times will vary, but fry until golden brown. And the food will be piping hot, so let it cool down before taking a bite.