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Fried Food Is Foundation of Fair

Chris Wrenn fell in love with Cajun food during his family's disaster relief efforts in Louisiana.
Chris Wrenn (center) fell in love with Cajun food during his family’s disaster relief efforts in Louisiana.

Former NC State football player Chris Wrenn started his Old North State Catering business as an offshoot of his family’s disaster relief efforts. The Fuquay-Varina native’s culinary passions were ignited on relief trips to Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters while serving food out of a 42-foot commercial kitchen trailer.

Since 2009, he has operated the Ragin’ Cajun booth at the North Carolina State Fair, serving up bits of alligator, frog legs, shrimp, crawfish and turkey wings.

Along with business partner Joe Fasy, a senior in NC State’s agricultural and extension education program, they will offer a few new menu items at this year’s fair, which starts Thursday with a preview day and runs daily through Oct. 25 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds across from the College of Veterinary Medicine and Carter-Finley Stadium. Among this year’s new food creations is their deep fried jalapeno pimento cheese and bacon hushpuppies with Sriracha Bang-Bang dipping sauce.

The new Howling Cow flavor at this year's North Carolina State Fair: Lemon wafer.
The new Howling Cow flavor at this year’s North Carolina State Fair: Lemon wafer.

Monday, Wrenn and Fasy joined a dozen or so other vendors, including NC State’s own Howling Cow lemon wafer ice cream, in showing off new selections.

Deep fryers were working overtime to create foods such as Murphy House’s Fry Me To the Moon, a deep-fried Moon Pie/triple Oreo/Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup/Hostess cupcake slathered in cream-cheese icing and sprinkled with Oreos and powdered sugar; Granny’s Country Kitchen’s High on the Hog, which is a fried pork chop piled with barbecue and bacon with optional cole slaw; and deep-fried Pop Tarts with strawberry preserves.

Mixed in with the 95 different rides from the Powers’ Great American Ride Midways on the fairgrounds and it might seem like everyone is competing in a weird game of throw-upsmanship. The modern fair is still the traditional showcase of agriculture and farming, North Carolina’s largest industry, with a little modern flare.

“We’ve got to keep that part of it strong,” says North Carolina Department of Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “With the expectation we’re going to have nine billion people on earth by 2050, we’ll need to increase our food production by 60 to 80 percent.

“We have to feed the world, otherwise we will have hungry people. Hungry people are mean people.”

Fry Me to the Moon
Fry Me to the Moon

Hunger is rarely a problem here, since fried food is now the fair’s foundation. Patrons seem to want culinary boundaries—and their waistlines—expanded. Mixed in with an occasional candy apple, some cotton candy and maybe an ear of corn for lone quasi-vegetable representation, are the concoctions that everyone wants to hear about, but many are reluctant to try.

Things definitely change. It was only a few years ago that now-passé hamburger-made-with-doughnuts-as-a-bun seemed awfully outrageous. Some of those changes are subtle; this year, in a nod to teenagers with braces and others who say “Naw” to gnawing, one vendor has an option of corn OFF the cob. Some are not; another vendor is selling a deep-fried, bacon wrapped Tootsie Roll and a pickle slathered in peanut butter wrapped in bacon and deep fried.

Not all creations are for everybody, but curious diners have a new choice this year: a weekday lunch pass available at gates 1 and 9. Pay $10 for the pass after 11:30 a.m., have lunch at the fair, and return to gate 11 by 1:30 p.m. to receive a $10 refund for the pass. All ticket options are available online through Thursday.

For Wrenn, the fun is not always in the food. He likes interacting with the young people who come to the fair, especially the football players who are now filling the cleats he once wore.

“They always come by and we start talking,” Wrenn says. “They usually come by right after practice and you can tell they are football players. We share some stories. It’s always fun.”

It’s been that way for years, as rural agricultural specialists, food visionaries and urban gawkers mix in an 11-day stew of humanity that could, with good weather, attract more than a million people.

“Plus, you get to be a carny for 10 days,” Wrenn says. “It’s kind of unreal.”