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Missed the carnival? Then consume the next best thing

August 10, 2005

BY LEAH A. ZELDES

Overnight, a vacant lot becomes transformed into a magical playground, filled with lively music, whirling rides and fascinating foods. Where else but a carnival can you get such delectable treats as fried dough, cotton candy, corn dogs and other foods on a stick?

Lots of places, it turns out, as restaurant chefs indulge our taste for these fun summer foods -- with more twists than a Tilt-a-Whirl. At Viand, 155 E. Ontario, chef Chris Eley has offered a duck corn dog special, and at Red Light, 820 W. Randolph, chef Jackie Shen sometimes serves a scallop-mousse corn dog as a complimentary hors d'oeuvre.

However, you can get the authentic article, hand-dipped and deep-fried to order, at Fat Willy's Rib Shack, 2416 W. Schubert. Offered as an appetizer, the all-beef, natural-casing dog, jacketed in a delectable golden coating with the crunch of real cornmeal, costs $3.50. "We make our own cornmeal batter," Fat Willy's John Collins says. "Everything is fresh here. We don't use frozen hot dogs."

Deep-fried corn dogs on a stick first started showing up at fairs in the 1940s, an enhancement of an older treat in which hot dogs were baked in cornbread dough inside a waffle-ironlike device. They've come a long way to miniturkey corn dogs, a popular appetizer at O'Donovan's, 2100 W. Irving Park, served 12 for $6 with fries and a choice of dipping sauces, including chef David Wennerlyn's house-made Cajun roasted-tomato aioli and French balsamic vinaigrette.

The hot dog is classic American festival food. A popular tale places its start at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, though food historians now say the wiener on a bun originated earlier. The footlong hot dog, however, got its launch at Chicago's Riverview amusement park in the 1930s, where proprietor George Schmidt reportedly introduced it as a cheap, filling meal to help attract visitors to the park during the Great Depression.

Today, chef James Gottwald at Rockit Bar & Grill, 22 W. Hubbard, serves a 12-ounce footlong Wagyu (American Kobe) beef dog on a steamed bun, dressed with parsley-laden chimichurri sauce, cranberry mustard and sauerkraut, and accompanied by fries drizzled with truffle oil, for $18.

One of Rockit's owners, hot-dog lover Brad Young, inspired the menu addition, according to spokeswoman Jill Katz: "The item originally ran as a special, and the customers loved it -- so it stayed!"

Fun and portable, food on a stick -- the epitome of outdoor festival fare -- probably goes back to the invention of fire. Even its simplest form -- grilled meat cooked on a skewer -- remains popular.

Uni-Mart manager Rommel Cabaya reports that Filipino-style barbecue chicken and pork sticks were a big hit at the Woodridge Jubilee in July. The skewers are also a daily top seller at the markets' toro-toro (Tagalog for "point-point") hot-food counters.

Glazed in house-made sweet barbecue sauce, the skewers sell for $6.25 per pound (six to eight sticks) at Uni-Mart's four stores: 5845 N. Clark; 7315 Dempster, Niles; 1038 Golf, Hoffman Estates, and Woodridge Plaza, 2457 W. 75th St., Woodridge.

The origins of lemonade also reach back to antiquity. Documents found in the Cairo Geniza (an archive of the 10th through 13th century Jewish community in Cairo, Egypt) comment on qatarmizat, a popular beverage of lemon juice mixed with lots of sugar. Somewhere along the way, lemon shake-ups became the quintessential summer festival drinks.

Andersson's Chocolates/ Patisserie in Westfield North Bridge, 520 N. Michigan, serves a refreshingly tart, grownup version that starts with lemons squeezed fresh each morning, then shaken to order with a spritzer, sugar and fresh lemon pieces, for $3.75.

Cotton candy, meanwhile, has its roots in spun sugar, an art that pastry chefs to Italian nobles knew as far back as the 16th century. The fluffy confection we enjoy today became circus and carnival food for the masses with the invention of the cotton-candy machine in 1897.

The machine melts sugar and forces it centrifugally through tiny holes where it becomes thousands of slender threads that can be collected on a stick. You can find a version even sweeter than the original at N9ne Steakhouse, 440 W. Randolph St., where Pastry Chef Dayna Berns wraps a cloud of blue fluff around a chocolate-covered pretzel stick and tucks in diminutive ice cream cones, for $9.

Another perennial carnival indulgence, the funnel cake, a Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy based on old German recipes, is made by pouring unleavened batter through a funnel into hot oil. (Similar fried-dough treats, elephant ears, start from a yeast dough.) Through Sept. 4, local IHOP restaurants offer funnel cakes with a choice of strawberry, blueberry or cinnamon-apple toppings and mounds of whipped cream, either alone or as part of a breakfast special starting at $5.99. Unfortunately, the cakes suffer a bit from being prepared elsewhere and shipped frozen to the restaurants for a final deep frying.

A newer festival favorite, the deep-fried Twinkie, takes that popular Chicago-born snack cake to a new plane. Christopher Sell, the British proprietor of a Brooklyn, N.Y., fish-and-chips shop, indulged his native countrymen's penchant for frying everything in sight and began serving the confection about 2002. Its fame spread almost immediately and the dessert showed up at fairgrounds as far away as Arkansas.

It's tastier than you'd think: The creamy vanilla filling melts into the sponge cake, which takes on a warm, soufflelike texture inside a delicately crisp shell. Locally, The Lion Head Pub, 2251 N. Lincoln; Famous Freddie's Roadhouse, 510 S. Park, Fox Lake, and Dick's River Roadhouse, 702 N. River, Mount Prospect, serve a version enhanced with cinnamon and sugar, dolloped with whipped cream and drizzled with strawberry syrup. It can be ordered alone ($1.25) or a la mode ($2).

"I was thinking about the concept at Dick's River Roadhouse -- good, cheap, fun eats," says Julia Shell of Ala Carte Entertainment, which owns the three taverns, "and I recalled fried Twinkies and fried candy bars being a big hit at fairs in the Midwest." The dessert has proven so popular that Ala Carte expects to introduce it soon at Celtic Crown Public House, 4301 N. Western.

So even if you prefer indoors to outdoors and restaurants to roller coasters, you can still get your fair-food fix.

Leah Zeldes is a Prospect Heights-based free-lance writer.

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