Fair food event lifts spirits after N.C. State Fair cancellation

By Anne Tate

When Dan Goolsby, 65, approached the rows of colorful food stands outside of J.S. Dorton Arena, which wafted the familiar scent of sugar-dusted funnel cakes through the air, he got goosebumps. He was teary-eyed thinking about the fair that he went to multiple times every year for 50 years.

Although the N.C. State Fair was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, fair food trucks and stands opened for 11 days of fried fun on the Raleigh fairgrounds. Hand-washing stations replaced ticket booths and masks covered smiles, but the familiarity of food on a stick and other once-a-year treats kept most spirits high.

The N.C. State Fair Food Event, featuring 22 North Carolina vendors, gave Dan Goolsby an afternoon of normalcy, where all he had to worry about was how long the lines would be. On their first day at the event, Dan Goolsby and his wife, Carolyn, waited in line for an hour for Italian sausages. But that didn’t stop them from coming back – and they planned to go again for a third day in a row.

“The best thing out here is the roasted corn,” Carolyn Goolsby said.

As they ate a garlic chicken pita and ribbon fries, the couple said that they were especially excited for the fair this year. They just turned 65 and planned to take advantage of the free fair admission for patrons 65 and older.

“We were planning on coming every day if we could,” Dan Goolsby said, a dab of tzatziki sauce on his nose.

In all the years they’ve visited, the couple will never forget the electric energy of going to the fair in the morning, cheering on UNC-Chapel Hill against N.C. State University at Carter-Finley Stadium in the afternoon, and celebrating a Tar Heel victory back at the fair in the evening. That, and when Carolyn Goolsby placed fifth in the cross-stitch competition.

They agreed that the fair food event definitely boosted their mood.

Lower-energy, but still fun

Bryan Farr, 35, came to the fair food event to enjoy “some unhealthy but comfortable snacks.” His favorite fix: the deep-fried crab ball stuffed with melted pimento cheese. He missed some aspects of the fair, but seemed content sitting in the afternoon sun eating his gourmet pumpkin spice funnel cake.

“It’s all about the food. Food is number one,” Farr said. “But I don’t mind risking my life on a fair ride.”

Without the blinking lights of rides and the music amplified from game booths, the event seemed to have less energy than the lively crowds of prior years, Farr said.

“I think from the mood of the pandemic, people are quieter these days,” Farr said.

Away from the lengthy lines, Christina Lane, 37, and Josh Menzone, 32, watched four-year-old Aria climb over a 200-pound watermelon and a 500-pound pumpkin. They were disappointed about missing the fair, but figured they’d grab some food because, “it’s obviously the best part,” Christina said.

“Did you like what you ate so far?” Lane asked her daughter.

“Uh-huh,” Aria replied, scaling the pumpkin.

Aria didn’t get to see her favorite part of the N.C. State Fair – the pig races – but she seemed satisfied with her corn dog, french fries, and the prospect of a candy apple and some cotton candy.

“It’s definitely not the same,” Lane said. “But it’s nice to just be here doing something different with the family and not have to worry so much about COVID and everything because it’s so spaced out and it’s not crowded.”

“I actually enjoy it like this, there’s nobody here,” Menzone said.

“He likes it better,” Lane replied, laughing.

COVID-19 concerns

When UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore Leighann Vinesett, 19, arrived at the fairgrounds on a date with her boyfriend, Brandon Conquest, 22, she felt like she had stepped back into 2019, before the pandemic began. And she wasn’t happy about it.

It was a Saturday, the lines were huge, and people kept taking their masks off to eat, she said. It felt like the regular State Fair and Vinesett didn’t feel safe.

“Do other people here feel that? Did anyone else feel anxious or was that just me being paranoid?” Vinesett asked. “Honestly, I thought it was terrifying.”

Vinesett skipped the crack-n-cheese-stuffed smoked turkey leg and left without buying any food.

Ragin’ Cajun owner Chris Wrenn, 50, also felt the familiarity of pre-COVID-19 life. But he liked it.

Each day, Wrenn looked out from behind the plexiglass barrier of his stand and saw something “close-ish” to normal. He saw people smiling with happy kids on their shoulders, wearing little masks and holding corn dogs and candy apples in both hands. Behind him, his staff skewered lightly breaded alligator tail and fried jalapeño bacon pimento cheese fritters to dip in Cajun ranch sauce. Every day, these specialties fought for fan favorite.

Although the event only lasted about a week and a half, the income from Ragin’ Cajun helped Wrenn beyond keeping his business afloat. His only daughter is getting married in December, and the fair food money helped with the dress shopping.

“It’s been good to be out here and generate some income to give her the wedding that her mom and I want her to have,” Wrenn said.

A chance to “reach a hand out” to those in need

Wrenn didn’t just give back to his family. Every vendor at the event contributed $100 to donate to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina for Food Lion Hunger Relief Day.

“We’ve got to remember that one of the biggest things we can do right now, I think everybody can do, is to find somebody you can help,” Wrenn said. “Just reach a hand out, no matter what color or political affiliation.”

Fat Boys BBQ owner and pitmaster Bobby Scott, 55, was very excited about the $2,200 donation – and to show off his 14-foot-long meat smoker, equipped with a 12-foot smokestack.

“Everybody says, ‘That looks like an atomic bomb,’” Scott said.

Usually, Fat Boys wouldn’t need to bring the smoker on-site, but during the event they couldn’t cook the meat fast enough. It was the busiest Scott had ever been in his career, he said.

He was shocked that the crowds were so big, and he was worried about a COVID-19 outbreak being traced back to the fair. But he appreciated that most people wore masks and seemed to be social distancing.

Despite his fears, he recognized that most people wanted to get out of the house. And he was glad to see new people.

“COVID turned everything for everybody upside down,” Scott said. “This one event has turned it back right side up for me.”

Edited by Natalia Bartkowiak