The Florida State Fair is known for out-there eats like doughnut burgers, enchilada funnel cake and catfish sundaes. This year, local culinary students had the chance to create their own innovative takes on fair food — with the hope that their recipes would be featured during the annual event.
Good news: A couple of them will be.
Prior to 2018, the Fair-Tastic Foods competition was a way for State Fair vendors to test their skills. But an expanded participation pool allowed kitchen wizards from several Pinellas County high schools to throw down in six categories: Anything on a Stick, Funnel Cake, Grilled Cheese, Deep Fried, Veggies and Surprise Us.
“With everything we do at the fair, we like to have educational opportunities. This was our opportunity to take fun fair food and bring in the students and schools,” said Florida State Fair Spokesperson and Director of Sales Terri Parnell-Longphee.
The recipe rumble’s inaugural student winners — chosen by members of the State Fair and the Ryan Wells Foundation, which works to improve the culinary and hospitality education of Pinellas students — are collaborators. Seniors Keith Simpkins and Ryley Bohlmann of Tarpon Springs High School’s Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy took home a win with their savory, turkey-based Midway Meatballs (Asian meatballs with vegan mayo and Sriracha). Another pair of seniors, Mallory Kulak and Joshua Harper of Seminole’s Osceola Fundamental High School, also succeeded with their sweet entry, Fair FUNnel Cake (a fried funnel cake sandwich of peanut butter, banana and marshmallow fluff).
Simpkins and Bohlmann went the turkey route because they wanted a challenge.
“Originally, we were going to go with meatballs on a stick, but we decided to do something more difficult and something no one else out there has already,” according to Simpkins.
Meanwhile, Kulak and Harper’s idea developed from lots of trial and error. The light bulb went off when Kulak recalled the nostalgic meal she often scarfed down as a kid.
“At first, we tried a grilled cheese thing, but it didn’t work,” Kulak said. “My godmother used to make the same grilled peanut butter, banana and marshmallow fluff sandwiches for me — all we had to do was figure out which category to put it in.”
The victorious dishes have scored a spot on the menus of State Fair vendors Carousel and The Best Around (both have been featured on Cooking Channel’s Carnival Eats series) and in the Florida State Fair Cookbook’s 2018 edition. Plus, their creators receive cash prizes and hands-on experience from cooking alongside the chosen vendors.
“We say the State Fair is the state’s largest classroom,” Parnell-Longphee said. “We get to teach so many things at the fair, and now we get to add the culinary and food experience as well.”