It's a lucky thing to show up in a new town and see that a fair is going on. That seems to happen to me all the time, which I can't explain, and it happened again this week in Tennessee. I was on my way to a running trail outside Knoxville when I saw the banners for the Tennessee Valley Fair (Sept. 7-16, Chilhowee Park).
I changed from running shoes into cowboy boots right there in the car and proceeded to do exactly the opposite of what I'd planned; what was almost a morning of exercise became instead a wild tear through a succession of fairground fried foods. Deep-fried cheddar cheese, deep-fried pepper jack cheese, deep-fried broccoli, and so much more.
The man in the window told me that deep-fried cheddar tastes "just like a grilled cheese." He was wrong. It doesn't taste like anything but itself, like soft (but not melted) cheddar cheese, salty and tangy and set off by a crispy layer of fried dough. The sharpness and solidity of the cheddar are what make it work; a sharper cheese would work even better. Deep-fried cheddar cheese is a dangerously good thing that could catch on as more than a fairground novelty.
As for the deep-fried pepper jack: with my eyes closed, I would have believed it was a jalapeño popper. And the deep-fried broccoli just wasn't greater than the sum of its parts: I tasted dough and warm broccoli separately, and neither was impressive on its own.
After the fried cheddar, my favorite item at the fair was the bacon corn dog, called "the Cadillac of corn dogs" by the vendor who made it. It's a hot dog wrapped in bacon, dipped in a bacon-studded cornbread mix, and fried.
And it wasn't the grease-dripping, sausage-heavy bacon fiasco that I'd expected. The cornbread was thick and moist but had more heat and crunch than corn flavor, while the pale hot dog and thin bacon imparted only light meatiness. Like the best mild white-bread-and-deli-meat sandwiches, the bacon corn dog went down quickly, easing my hunger without making any big statement about it.
And what's a fair without a deep-fried candy bar? The 3 Musketeers proved better-suited to frying than other bars. The creamy center makes for a nice, even bite that's not too painfully sweet. As the bar cools, though, it becomes a regular 3 Musketeers cased in funnel cake. Which is not so good. Eat deep-fried chocolate while it's hot.
While you're in the area, head up the street to Chandler's for some world-class fried chicken. The shell is extra crispy and the meat inside is pot roast tender. The macaroni and cheese and green beans are good as those two things ever were. The ribs were a little disappointing: fatty and tough and drowned in a sweet tomato sauce that distracts from the smoky meat.