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Phanor Viera, left, and Carolina Viera De La Torre outside the Arepas Ranch food truck at the Calgary Stampede grounds on June 7. Arepas Ranch is a family-run business that serves traditional Venezuelan food.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

With Stampede season under way fully for the first time since 2019, the quirky and vast realm that is the festival’s midway food will be among the wildest attractions.

There are 142 outdoor food and drink vendors and 110 indoors, preparing anything from the classics (mini doughnuts) to more unorthodox eats that run the gamut from bug-topped hot dogs to the delicious-sounding deep-fried mochi.

Calgary Stampede’s director of programming, Kyle Russell, is helping curate the food and beverage offerings. While he does not fully divulge the application process for vendors, nor how many apply, he knows food is an integral part of the 10-day event.

“We have a number of vendors who return year after year, and we know there are guest favourites on the midway, like turkey legs and mini doughnuts, but the entire food curation experience is a partnership between the Stampede team and our vendors,” Mr. Russell says. “Our team looks at the mix of vendors in the park so that our guests have a food experience they won’t find anywhere else.”

Phanor, left, Estafani Jerez, centre, and Carolina prepare food inside the food truck on the Stampede grounds.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

Indulgent carnival eats are nothing new. Whether it’s caramel apples, cotton candy, mini doughnuts or otherwise, looking forward to a bite on the Stampede grounds is a century-old tradition, but it’s only in the past 10 or 15 years that things have gotten, well, weird.

It’s a love-it-or-hate-it aspect of the annual festival that seems to pique attendees’ interests. It’s also a good excuse for local food businesses to get a little obscure … in the spirit of Stampede, of course.

Of all of the strange offerings this year, Mr. Russell says the Kraft Dinner Soft Serve – the cheese packet has been mixed in with soft ice cream – has been the most talked about. I’m not sure if I personally agree with it being a “crowd favourite,” but there is no doubt this shock-value creation creates long lineups for a taste.

“The food experience at the Stampede is a reason many people come to the park because the offerings are so unique. [It would] be difficult to visit the Stampede and not have a food experience. The sights and smells of the food vendors are hard to pass by,” Mr. Russell says.

Corn flour patties on the grill.

A chicken Pelua.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

Tim Cheng, owner of the Dumpling Hero food truck in Calgary, was first accepted as an official midway food vendor in 2019 and garnered plenty of buzz online for his truck’s truffle-lobster dumplings. Dumpling Hero was selected as best rookie among first-time vendors that year.

“Stampede is a great place for advertising our business. It not only exposes us to [local food lovers], but also international tourists,” Mr. Cheng says, adding that the fair has helped the company grow its social media presence. “We’ve been able to appear on TV, radio shows and more. It’s a great event for marketing.”

The truck owner has already had much attention for his 2022 creation, the Pig-Kle sandwich, in which deep-fried pork belly and slaw is sandwiched in a gigantic pickle. Mr. Cheng explains that the inspiration for this year’s playful creation came from his wife.

“We developed the sandwich while my wife was pregnant with our second child. It was a pregnancy craving that didn’t make sense at first, but [the finished product] actually blew our minds,” he says.

Carolina speaks to a Calgary Stampede employee, right.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

Arepas Ranch is another local mobile eatery to search out. As the name of Carolina De La Torre’s Venezuelan food truck implies, it is all about the arepa. She explains that during Stampede the eatery decided to offer items beyond its traditional preparations. An arepa is a maize dough-based bread that is grilled or fried and then cut open and filled with a variety of ingredients.

”In the case of Stampede, we will focus on creating more specific options in relation to the type of customer … we will combine native Venezuelan flavours with some local flavours,” she explains. “Regardless, we always want to make it clear that the fundamental characteristic of Arepas Ranch is to offer authentic Venezuelan homemade cuisine.”

Ms. De La Torre’s feature midway food item is the Stampedua, a fried arepa filled with pulled pork, coleslaw, and pineapple, drizzled with a signature garlic sauce.

She says that although the company previously had a booth in the Stampede’s makers’ market, it is looking forward to the challenge of serving food at a high volume on what are sure to be bustling fairgrounds.

“[Over the years], we’ve experienced the excitement as visitors and spectators to the midway and now it’s time to experience the excitement as a food vendor at the event itself. We expect a lot of work and plenty of satisfied customers,” she says.

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