As I strolled around Junk Food Alley preparing to sample and critique all that the Three Rivers Festival's top draw had to offer, I kind of found myself stumped.
I have had all of those delicious offerings so many times that I could write about them in my sleep. And this year, there weren't too many new creations to salivate over.
So I went to the people in the know. These are the people who put in the hours and the sweat to make the festival successful and who seldom get the praise they deserve – the volunteers. What do they love about Junk Food Alley?
In an odd familial coincidence, Jerry White, coordinator of programming for the festival, and his wife, Eva, who is in charge of sponsor hospitality, each chose different dishes from different booths, but both are made by the same family.
Jerry's go-to is Mr. Beefy's sirloin tips, and Eva's is the giant pork chop from Miss Piggy's. Miss Piggy – Mr. Piggy, actually – is Steve Gresham of Seymour. He also started Mr. Beefy's, but it is now operated by his son, Doug.
The sirloin tips are fresh – not frozen – and are paired with smashed red potatoes, sautéed onions and mushrooms. I have had plenty of these tips and they never disappoint.
The chops, which Gresham said are anywhere from 13 to 16 ounces, are grilled and seasoned with the stand's signature sauce. That sauce is sweet, the chops are big, filling and plenty fatty, which is a great thing.
I also got a vote of confidence in Miss Piggy's boneless rib sandwich from Headwaters Park events coordinator Mike Holley. And yes, they, too, are worth the price.
It is really hard to walk past these two neighboring booths without being drawn in, not only by the intoxicating aromas of the meats, but by the look of the chops sitting over the fire with the sauce dripping down and glistening in the sun.
“People tell me they can smell it as soon as they hit the festival and just follow their noses until they find us,” Gresham says, adding that word-of-mouth advertising and repeat customers are his stands' lifeblood.
Festival board member and past president Adam Ehle mentioned a fresh-and-never-frozen offering that I probably never would have tried had he not. He loves the burgers from the Burger Bob's trailer.
Ehle also listed the rye and Swiss from the Wisconsin cheese trailer (another of my favorites), hobo potatoes and Timmy's BBQ from Garrett as the “one thing” he has to have at the festival. So he is either really indecisive or just my kind of guy who loves to eat.
Bob Dias has been making his burgers fresh for decades. He buys the meat when he arrives in town – at Gordon's Food Service or Sam's Club – then seasons the meat with a secret blend of spices and cooks them in garlic and olive oil on a flat-top grill. He used to do about 27 events each year but has slowed down. Junk Food Alley is just one of seven spots where the native of Brazil hawks his burgers, cheese steaks and sausages.
Ehle loves his burgers with bacon, pepper jack cheese and jalapeños, but I kept mine simple with just bacon and American cheese – plus lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle – because I did not want the peppers to mask the flavor of the fresh meat. And this burger was fantastic. The half-pound patties were super juicy; the seasoning was perfect, so the garlic just added a hint of flavor without overpowering.
“I have seen a lot of the same people come back more than once for them,” says Celina Crawford of Fort Wayne, who started working for Dias on Friday. “And I have seen a few who have been here for one every day.”
I never think of burgers when I think of festival food, but I will never forget this one, and it will be on my yearly must-have list.
On my must-have list and probably near the top of my tally of greatest Junk Food Alley treats is a new item this year. Funnel cake queen Jane Harris of The Best Around booth is offering a pineapple inside-out funnel cake that is the perfect mix of sweet and tangy. Harris, who has been featured on such Travel Channel shows as “Deep Fried Paradise 3” and “State Fair Foods” and Food Network's “Midway Munchies,” adds a little pineapple to the batter, fries it until golden brown and then tops it with caramel, a mixture of ingredients – other than pineapple – that she keeps closely guarded, a cherry and powdered sugar.
“When you make a pineapple upside-down cake, the brown sugar and butter caramelizes on the bottom of the pan, so that is why we use caramel on top,” Harris says. She also noted that the pineapple mixture is special because it can't have too much juice or the cake will get soggy.
Harris recently began a business away from festivals, and it is one I know I will contribute to. Mama Jane's Gourmet Funnel Cakes offers cake and icing mixes through its website, www.ilovefunnelcakes.com. The mixes can be made into classic cakes if you have a cast iron skillet and ring mold, or can be made in medium saucepans. They also can be used to make pancakes or waffles.
I may have to buy a mix to try and emulate Harris' other new creation this year – red velvet Oreos. They were great, but they still didn't hold a candle to the pineapple funnel cake. It was perfection.
Officer Clay Taylor of the Fort Wayne Police Department agreed when he sampled my pineapple inside-out funnel cake. He called it possibly the best funnel cake he has ever had, and he always has a funnel cake at the festival.
“I usually wait until the last day to get one so I don't get powdered sugar on my uniform,” Taylor says.
I cannot confirm or deny that he may have panicked a bit and ran for a wet paper towel a few minutes later when he spotted some powdered sugar on his neatly pressed black uniform pants after stealing another bite.