ALPENA - For some visitors at the Alpena County Fair, the source of the mouth-watering smells wafting among the food booths are a major reason to go there.
Some of the dishes served out of these mobile kitchens aren't typically found outside of the fair, and others have become part of the experience. The food has a bit of a reputation for being high in fat or calories, and this was undisputed by a handful of visitors and vendors Thursday afternoon. Even so, there are some who see it as an annual tradition, or even the main reason to come.
Doug Burnie of Fowlerville, who owns a food trailer called Mr. B's, said fair food is popular because it gives people a reason to take a break from their diets.
"Fair food is not diet food, but when you can take a day off, it's a great thing to have," he said.
One item Burnie sells that is particularly popular in Alpena is a fried, cornmeal-coated mozzarella stick, he said. Another snack that's gaining popularity are jalapeno cheese balls.
"Up here in Alpena, people love their cheese," he said.
Nearby, Amy Nichols of Bay City and Kristin Lilly of Harrison made elephant ears inside Sandy's Elephant Ear Express. In between frying the thin, round pieces of dough, Nichols said she ate the food as a kid.
"I remember going to the fair, and that was what I went for, the elephant ears," she said. "I'd ride the rides until I couldn't stand it and then I'd go get my elephant ear."
By Nichols' estimation, elephant ears are among the most popular fair foods, with cotton candy, lemonade and corn dogs as close contenders, she said.
"I have people come in all the time who tell us they paid the gate fee just to buy an elephant ear," she said.
For Lilly, they're just "delicious," she said.
"It's a whole plate of dessert that just stares you down," she said.
Back outside of Burnie's food trailer, Gordon Armstrong of Bear Lake sat with two others eating slices of pizza. He agreed the food is part of the experience, especially elephant ears.
"Those are always the fair food," he said. "It's once a year, you have to get one."
A few hours later, Chris Preston of Spruce tried some of the fried dough for the first time, she said. Hers was topped with chocolate and cream.
"They're good," she said. "I know I'm going to get a sugar high."
After joking with Ernie Zubalik and Marj Cordis, both sitting nearby, Preston said she's not usually fond of sweets, but wanted to give elephant ears a try.
"I haven't been to a fair in years and years," she said, adding she was having a good time Thursday afternoon.
Jordan Travis can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5688.