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The word on the street at this summer's street festivals is encouraging for foodies. Step aside, fried dough and cotton candy, and make way for farm-fresh artisan cheeses, homebaked desserts and rich and spicy ethnic dishes from all corners of the globe. These are just some of the delicious specialties available at any number of outdoor festivals taking place across the region. When it comes to food, the emphasis at many of these events is on local, creative cuisine that goes far beyond the customary fairgrounds fare of the past.
Take the Woodstock Academy's fresh-baked apple crisp at the Woodstock Fair, held each year over Labor Day weekend (Friday, Aug. 13 through Monday, Sept. 2). For the past 30 years, volunteers from the Academy's Athletic Booster Club have been making batches of the cinnamony-sweet, old-time New England treat, served fresh from the oven with a generous dollop of ice cream, or whipped cream.
And they're guilt-free. . . sort of. Proceeds go to support summer-camp scholarships for students and athletic equipment for the school. Other feel-good/taste-good options at the fair include Most Holy Trinity church's "Potato Heaven" booth, which serves up a bewildering variety of stuffed potatoes.
Try the crabmeat and shrimp, the bacon and cheese, or the handsdown favorite — the Mexican, a baked potato topped with chili, cheese, lettuce, tomato, salsa, sour cream and chives. "For $5.50 it's one of the best deals at the fair and a meal in itself," said church member John Brannigan, who has been manning the booth for the past 25 years. And speaking of spuds and traditions, the Woodstock Fair would not be the same without a crispy batch of Ray's French Fries.
This family business was started in 1945 by the late Raymond Donnelly, a longtime state representative and member of the fair's board of directors. When Donnelly died in 1986, his daughter, Beverly Papoojian, inherited the operation's familiar white and green vending trucks, with the revolving box of fries spouting from the roof. "I was just going to run it for a year, in my father's memory. That was 27 years ago, so I guess it's been a long season," joked Papoojian.
Though not as old as the Woodstock Fair, Willimantic's "Third Thursday Street Fest," begun in 2002, has already established its own unique, culinary traditions. Held on the third Thursday of the month from May through September, the fair offers a wide variety of exotic street food, courtesy of several of Willimantic's ethnically diverse neighborhoods.
Go-to favorites include Indian standards, like tika masala and veggie samosas from Wings Express, or oven-roasted pulled pork tacos and ground beef empanadas, prepared by members of Windham's Iglesia Del Sagrado Corazon, a church with a large Puerto Rican congregation. "A lot of our vendors are small, local entrepreneurs and churches. There is actually very little carnival-type food available," said Third Thursday organizer Jean de Smet.
The same is true of Old Lyme's "Midsummer Festival" held on July 26 and 27. Many of its "en plein air" food vendors are boutique operations that focus on organic, locally produced food. You can't get much more local than Cato Corner Farm cheeses, made from the milk of free-range Jersey cows on a small, family-run farm in Chester.
The creamy, mild "Dutch Farmstead," with its nutty undertones is a popular classic, while "Hooligan" — Cato's signature "stinky" cheese — is an award-winning favorite. On the sweet but healthy side, Nate's Naturals granola blends apple sauce from Bishop's Orchards in Guilford with locally produced honey in its "Toasted Orchard" variety of granola. "Granola Rex," a mixture of rolled oats, wheat germ, oat bran, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, and local wildflower honey from Hannan Honey in Southbury is a standard favorite.
The New Haven-based company's latest crunchy concoction is "Declaration Revolutionary Granola" — made with barley malt, golden flax seeds, local cornmeal, sliced almonds, sunflower seeds, cinnamon and nutmeg, tweaked with tangy chopped apricots and dried cherries. The smell of freshly baked, artisanal loaves of "Howard's Bread" routinely lures visitors to Howard Kaplan's stand at the Midsummer Festival every year. Among Kaplan's most popular creations are "fougasse," a French version of Italian focaccia. Oblong and crispycrusted, with an airy, soft interior, fougasse are often stuffed, somewhat like a calzone, with a variety of fillings, such as olives, cheese or anchovies. Kaplan takes fougasse to new heights by offering such twists as blue cheese and walnut, along with traditional oil-cured olives.
"I started baking bread 15 years ago and it became a passion that just got out of control," he chuckled. At "First Fridays" in Putnam — held the first Friday of the month, May through October, 6-9 p.m. — local businesses also provide much of the food everyone has come to know and love, like the Coney Island-style hot dogs and curly fries at Nikki's Dog House at 5 Canal Street.
Another hometown favorite is The Main Street Grille (their motto: "Where the Locals Go"), praised by Foodies of New England magazine for its "typical diner options with a creative twist," such as French toast made from croissants or sweet potato home fries. New London's Sailfest (July 12-14) offers some of the most exciting, and unusual, dining experiences of the summer festival season. There's nothing like a traditional New England lobster dinner with all the fixings – steamers, corn on the cob, rolls and butter – overlooking the waterfront.
Sailfest offers all that, plus a ringside seat for the world-class fireworks display for $95. While that might seem like a hefty price for some food-stall fare, consider the setting. "You are right there on the waterfront, away from the crowds sitting at a private dining table in a roped-off area away from the crowds, enjoying a lobster dinner and the best seats available for watching the fireworks," said Barbara Neff, Sailfest executive director, who noted that tickets sell out every year. (To buy them in advance, go to www.sailfest.org .)
If lobster is not your thing, but exotic foods whet your appetite, you might want to sample the alligator tail at the Hammerhead Seafood booth — another sellout item. Those who say that alligator tastes like chicken can compare it to the real thing: Thaispiced chicken on a stick, served up by Eric Smaw of Alexandria, Va., whose booth "The Chicken Smells Good" inspires e-mails to Neff's office starting in the spring. "People will write me, wanting to know, 'Will the chicken be there this year?'" said Neff. Rest assured, it will be.
Links to summer fairs & festival around the region: