What’s faster than fast food, twice the price and triple the calories? If you guessed carnival food, you are correct.
Strolling through the midway amid a sea of tank tops, tattoos and teenagers, the presence of food is undeniable. Tantalizing smells and not-so-delicious-looking signs make food an undeniable option every few steps.
With close to three of every different food booth at the Ex, there are plenty of mini donuts, snow cones, cotton candy, pizzas on a stick, jumbo hot dogs and elephant ears to go around. There really isn’t any argument concerning palatability . . . the food does taste good. But what is it that makes carnival food carnival food? A look at the logistics of portable food vending suggests that ingredients must be kept to a minimum to ease the transportation of the operation. Additionally, the food must have the ability to be prepared quickly, in order to serve large numbers of fair-goers in a short amount of time.
The profit motive must also be considered, as the goal of these food vendors is obviously to make money. This means that it is highly likely that the foods offered at carnivals do not consist of overly expensive ingredients and the price mark-up is probably significant. That being said, these foods are obviously popular and in demand.
A closer look at the anatomy of cotton candy reveals that it is of simple composition, but is scientifically complex. It’s just sugar, but the process that turns it into cotton candy is quite interesting. As sugar consists of sucrose, which can be broken down into glucose and fructose, the process of caramelization involves heating sugar until it liquefies. Liquefied sugar can then be spun into threads and molded into different shapes, crystallizing as it cools.
Initially done by hand by pastry chefs in the 15th century, the late 19th century saw the invention of an electrical cotton candy making machine. Using centrifugal force, the machine spun and heated sugar at the same time, eliminating the need to do the spinning by hand. The liquid sugar could then be shaped into long, thin strings as it passed through tiny holes in the heated, spinning bowl. Dye added to the mixture during this process resulted in a colourful and sweet treat, usually the pinks or blues seen most frequently today.
Popularized at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, cotton candy sold for 25 cents and led to an astounding profit of $17,000 US. Today, that would be the equivalent of close to $420,000 US, quite significant figure. With this success, cotton candy quickly became a carnival food staple, which it remains to this day.
Although carnival food as a whole remains sugary, salty and greasy, the truth is, carnival-goers need to eat. A day on the midway consists of a lot of walking, a literal roller coaster of emotions and tolerance for either extremely hot or extremely wet weather. In the microcosm of the carnival — healthy or not — people will eat based on the choices that surround them.
However, it was particularly heartening to see a Booster Juice booth set up at the Red River Ex in Winnipeg this year. It was one of the few (ok, the only) healthy option out there and maybe its presence marks a shift in the carnival food canon.