Bug-laden grilled-cheese sandwiches. Pop-Rocks-filled mini doughnuts. Cinnamon-sugar “beaver balls” topped with prairie oysters (otherwise known as bull testicles). And the standard mini-doughnut, now celebrating its 50th year at the Calgary Stampede.
The food offerings on the Stampede midway are the latest in an annual attempt to outdo the previous year’s selection of appetite-inducing – or in some cases stomach-churning – culinary experiments for hundreds of thousands of visitors in faux and authentic cowboy gear.
While the boundaries have moved, the novelty of midway food is nothing new, but rather part of vendors’ century-long attempt to one-up each other, explains Calgary Stampede’s historical specialist Cassandra Cummings.
“The foods that were introduced [at fairs] between 1900 and 1920, were foods that saw people eating in a total different way,” she explains.
“To us today, walking down the midway eating an ice cream cone seems like nothing, but to that first contingent of people that were able to do that at a fair? It would have been really interesting, completely novel and maybe even a bit bizarre.”
Ms. Cummings, a year-round employee of the Stampede whose volunteer committee preserves the history of the event, says classic fair foods such as cotton candy or candy apples came to Canada more than a century ago. They coincided with large-scale fairs elsewhere in North America, such as the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.
“In 1929, the patent for corn dogs was made in Texas and by the 1940s, people were seeing a lot of food on a stick,” Ms. Cummings says.
“This made a lot of sense for people walking around a midway [while eating] and it is one of those original midway food ‘trends’ that you still see today.”
From there, things got exponentially more interesting. Caramel apples were originally developed by Kraft Canada in the early 1950s as a way to encourage people to use caramel sauce in more inventive ways and were introduced on fairgrounds as a wild, new alternative to candy apples. Not the most wild these days by any means, but a nice Canadian feather in the cap as this is the only iconic fair food that has been created in Canada.
The mini-doughnut machine was invented in 1947 in California by a group of engineers and also became popularized throughout North America in the 1950s, but they didn’t arrive here in Calgary until 1968.
“I think there will always be this trend to keep pushing the limits [with midway food]. You know, ‘let’s just be crazy to be crazy’, but we sell more than two million mini doughnuts during Stampede each year. People will always want those iconic, comforting foods,” Ms. Cummings says.
The experimentation on the modern-day midway has picked up in the past decade. In 2010, the Calgary Stampede decided it had enough diversity in its vendors’ food offerings to begin holding annual midway food competitions, in which local culinary experts and media personalities would sample an array of new and inventive creations to crown winners in categories of “savoury” and “sweet”.
Those competitions spawned battered and deep-fried Kit Kat bars, deep-fried wraps filled with hot dogs, pickles, bacon and cheese (the Big Pickle Tornado, which is honestly worth a try) and other oddities.
While some vendors focus on pure jaw-drops and buzz, others vendors have actually created palatable success in taking simple ingredient combinations to a high-wire, carnival level.
There is always some level of ridiculousness to be found with this type of fare, but if you’re wearing plaid and a cheap cowboy hat like I have been, then we’re not really any less ridiculous than (some) of the food we’re consuming during Stampede.
Sheila Fetter, an Edmonton native and owner of The Peanut Butter Cupboard, was this year’s recipient of “best new sweet food on the midway” for her sweet-tooth-appealing “Sweetheart”. Imagine a peanut butter and honey sandwich made with two honey-cruller doughnuts grilled together with peanut butter and a Reese’s peanut butter cup in-between. The result is nothing short of a sugar high, but playful in nature.
Ms. Fetter’s love of the Calgary Stampede began in 1998 when she first worked on the grounds as a face painter. Over the years, she fell in love with the culture of the annual fair and grew increasingly interested in the midway food aspect of it all. When The Peanut Butter Cupboard came up for sale after last year’s Stampede, she jumped at the chance to get into a mobile kitchen and dive deep into the midway’s culinary scene.
“A lot of [midway foods] can go too far. I created something that I would personally really want to eat,” Ms. Fetter explains. “It’s my favourite doughnut and I love peanut butter. It’s ooey, gooey and sweet. It’s got everything. I also think it’s really important to create an item that you can’t just order at a restaurant.”
She goes on to say that her signature creation has become so popular following the Calgary Stampede accolade as well as plenty of local media buzz that the “Sweetheart” will likely be out-of-stock before the festival wraps Sunday evening.
“We are already working on our top-secret plans for next year, but we’re not going to leak anything on that,” says Ms. Fetter, chuckling. “I’m feeling so grateful though. I have a great team and all of the recognition from the Stampede and customers ... everything. It’s been wonderful.”