March isn’t only about corned beef and cabbage!
While many prepare for this time of year by pulling out their dress greens and boiling up some beef, many other foods are celebrated around the first day of Spring.
As it is typically the time when the ice and snow begin to melt, March may be a questionable pick for national frozen food month. On the other hand, March’s lingering crispness makes for an excellent time for National Mulled Wine Day (March 3). With St. Patrick’s Day on so many minds, it makes sense that March 17 is both National Corned Beef and Cabbage Day and also National Green Beer Day. As the sap is running in March, it is also a natural pick for Maple Syrup Saturday (which falls this year on March 20). And for we early risers and morning go-getters (at least those who are not intermittently fasting or avoiding gluten), any day is an excellent day for National Cereal Day (March 7)! While March may be National Nutrition Month, a few of its 31 days do not seem to be in keeping with this theme. While many may celebrate the mathematically-inclined Pi day on March 14 (3.14, get it?!), other pie-related days may not be so good for your brain and may make your radius increase. Among these are National Banana Cream Pie Day (March 2) and National Pound Cake Day (March 4). That March 5 is recognized as National Cheese Doodle Day may not be so dandy.
Sticking out above all of these, however, is March 28, which is National Something-on-a-Stick Day.
Whoever assigns these national days did not specify what you should eat to celebrate the day. Many suggest using it as a day to master chopsticks or skewer fruit or veggies for kabobs). Advocates of this annual celebration of all foods portable agree that pretty much any food can be served (and improved!) on-a-stick. Each year, new ideas emerge, and new challenges await.
When people think of foods on a stick, items like cotton candy and popsicles may come to mind. For anyone who has visited a county fair, however, the menu expands exponentially!
At the Minnesota State Fair (which many consider the granddaddy of skewered foods), nearly 1/5 of all of the over 500 available food items are available on a stick.
“Food on a stick is often sold at celebrative events with lots to see and do,” says Rey O’Day, executive director of the National Independent Concessionaires Association (NICA), “making walk-around- food the perfect solution for enhancing the guest experience.”
According to Minnesota Fair representative Lara Hughes, as the fairgrounds cover 322 acres packed with activities and shows, food on a stick is “the perfect answer [because] fair guests can eat their food-on-the-go and not miss a thing.”
Though the national observance history may be shrouded in mystery, Hughes’ colleague, Danielle Dullinger, explains that the first sticky food at the Fair arrived in 1947, when Pronto Pup opened their first kiosk on the fairgrounds. Since then, Dullinger asserts, “it has blossomed into so much more.” And while she agrees with Hughes that the ability to carry your food as you peruse the massive grounds is essential, Dullinger adds that, as there are so many foods to try, many people spend most of their day carrying one food until they can reach the next kiosk and stick another stick in their mouths.
“Guests walk from booth to booth,” Dullinger observes, “to take in all that the fair has to offer – all while enjoying their portable concoction on a stick.”
According to O’Day, this concept is known among fair insiders as “grazing.”
“Fairgoers walk from stand to stand tasting many foods or bring different foods together at a table or standing together and share them,” she says. “Sticks work well to do this!”
In fact, O’Day explains that, when talking to each other at various venues, concessionaires often ask each other, “How’s the grazing going today?”
While “grazing” has long been a feature of state fairs, Dullinger notes how, in recent years, the social media appeal of sticked foods has become a major issue.
“The trend in the world of food is to make sure your product is ‘Instagram worthy,’” she maintains. “Does this food photograph well? Will it be the most talked-about item? Word of mouth via social media is increasingly a factor for food vendors when trying to come up with new and unique items each year”
Perhaps that is why a trend started with hot dogs has expanded to such diverse dining destinations as deep-fried candy bars and cheese, bacon, egg rolls, pork chops, and the Gopher State’s beloved tater tot hot dish. Walking around the grounds in Minnesota or other fairs and venues, however, you will soon see that these are just the beginning
Among the most prolific and progressive of fair-food fans is Dominic Palmieri. In addition to being a CCE (Certified Concessionaire Executive), Palmieri is also the CEO of Odyssey Foods LLC. Known as “The Midway Gourmet,” Palmieri oversees several stands at the Los Angeles County Fair and the Arizona and California State Fairs (among others), most of which offer various (and widely diverse) foods on sticks.
“We love foods that are on a stick,” says the NICA past president, noting that he has been offering such foods for over 35 years, starting with meatballs on sticks and corn on the cob that used the peeled-back husk as the carrying mechanism. “We love foods that are creative and innovative with different textures and spiciness and flavors!”
When asked how the explosion of stick-based foods has altered his outlook on business, Palmieri (who began his cooking career stirring spaghetti sauce for “Pasta King” Art Ibleto at the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, CA and who has gone on to be featured on Food Network’s ”Carnival Kings” and several other shows and networks) replies, “Having the ability to sell multiple food items on a stick has greatly impacted our business and our bottom line. We have been able to innovate new interesting foods that are appealing to today’s modern fair go-er.”
Among Palmieri’s favorites are deep-fried Twinkies and cheesecake, shrimp and pizza on-a-stick, the “Big Daddy” corn dog (a 14-inch pecan-smoked sausage dipped in corn dog batter, deep-fried and then topped with cheddar cheese and crushed up flaming hot Cheetos), and what he calls “The Big Rib” (a two-pound beef behemoth that uses its 17-inch bone in place of a wooden stick, much like the giant turkey legs that are popular at County and medieval fairs).
Besides knowing a lot about today’s fair foods fans, Palmieri also has in-depth knowledge of the history of food that came on sticks. According to him, sightings of stick-set foods go back hundreds of years!
“Around the mid-12th century,” he says, “it has been documented that the Turkish peoples started doing kebabs where they actually cooked their meat on a stick and eventually started eating it right off of the stick.”
As for modern marvels, Palmieri suggests that the creation of cotton candy and the advent of candy apples around the turn of the 20th century started the contemporary craze.
“As concessionaires became more creative,” he maintains, “[it] led to a large array of foods that are now sold on a stick. “
While each of these new items competes each year for the longest lines (and now most likes), there are also smaller competitions within the world of stuck foods. And while most of their foods are served at fairs, the fights are not always so fair.
Among the most notable (and contested) battles is that between Pronto Pup and the corn dog. Ask nearly anyone at the Minnesota Fair and they will have already taken a side. According to Gregg Karnis (the son of Jack Karnis who first brought Pronto Pup to the Midwest after a trip to Portland, OR), the difference is in the ingredients. In addition to cornmeal (which is the mark of the corn dog), Pronto Pups also have corn, wheat, and rice flours, and less added sugar than the famously sweet corn dog. Karnis is also proud to point out that the sausages that come between the sticks and the corn-y crust are made from meats in nearby Wisconsin, perhaps hinting at the emergence of a “farm-to-stick” movement.
While there are legends about vendors coming up with batter-fried hot dogs in the early 1940s and selling them at fairs in California and Texas as early as 1938 (among these the story of Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs founder Neil Fletcher, who is not only credited with giving Texas the corn dog but also giving Faye Dunaway a bag of cash in “Bonnie and Clyde” nearly 30 years later), Pronto Pup is both the original corn dog and the first food served on a stick at the Minnesota State Fair. It was also the primary purveyor to promote with pulsating lights and later became the home of the world’s largest corn dog and the first riding mechanical corndog! Such savvy sales techniques have kept Pronto Pup at the head of the dog pack, and the 34 tons of dogs sold represent about 55 percent of hot dogs sold each year!
While that may seem to be enough to claim superiority, as so many people come to Minnesota from so far away, they know not Pronto and may be more comfortable with the corn dog they get at home. Even Karnis himself has been known to question the sense of his father’s opening the first Pronto Pup franchise east of the Rockies.
“Who in the world would put a stick in a hot dog and dip it in batter and deep-fry it?” he queried, suggesting that the question was moot as, “everybody loved the taste!”
Soon after Jack Karnis brought Pronto Pup to Illinois, a Minneapolis businessman tried one and suggested he bring them to Minnesota. The rest is sticky food history, filled with many Karnis family members reuniting each summer at the Fair to sell Pups as pronto as possible. And while the recipe has not changed much, Gregg realizes the need for further innovation, so while his father invented the wheel on which Pronto Pups are cooked, Gregg devised a spearing device that can put up to 50 dogs on-a-stick simultaneously!
Speaking of innovation, each year, new foods become available on-a-stick in Minnesota and elsewhere.
At the Los Angeles County Fair, hot dogs on sticks are also popular and go by a much simpler name.
“Hot Dog on a Stick is by far the most famous and notorious on-a-stick brand,” asserts Hot Dog on a Stick spokesperson Kathleen Shaffer, noting that the company was founded in 1946 at Muscle Beach by Dave Barham.
“[Dave] wanted to create easy to eat delicious food perfect for on-the-go beachgoers,” Shaffer explains, noting that, as with so many great food creators, his recipe was inspired by his mother’s home cooking. “After his beachside stand became popular, he started selling at state fairs and eventually grew the concept in malls across the West.”
Today, Hot Dog on a Stick has 60 shops nationwide, as well as kiosks in Asia. O’Day points out that, as some of the family members who run the company are vegetarian, they recently released Cheese on a Stick as well.
“It’s now an iconic brand,” Shaffer concludes. “Hot Dog on a Stick is the ultimate feel-good food. Our menu is nostalgic and our “On-a-Stick” offerings are loved by families looking for a snack or meal that is easy to eat while enjoying the beach, strolling the malls, or throwing a party. Everyone loves Hot Dog on a Stick!” except people who do not eat meat. Fortunately for them, there are innovators in the on-a-stick space too!
In Boston, a self-proclaimed “local recipe developer” who goes by the title of “La Pheegan Chef” (a.k.a., Charlie Lumpkins) came up with Sassy Jack Chick’n™ a vegan meat alternative that is served- you guessed it – on a stick.
When asked what inspired her, Lumpkins recalls growing up “in a small tight community” in Sacramento, California, where a neighbor took her to a local Greek festival. It was there that Lumpkins encountered the gyro.
“It was amazing,” she recalls. “Up until then, the only food I had ever eaten on-a-stick were the usual suspects – the corndog and the popsicle.” Since her “Greek food experience,” however, Lumpkins has become enamored with Mediterranean and Asian foods, many of which are served on skewers.
“When you bite into Sassy Jack Chick’n,” Lumpkins asserts, “you taste the savory flavors of my mixed cultural background [of] Latin, Native American, and Southern African American…all wrapped into something that is uniquely all-American because even though it leans on all of these flavor profiles, it is something all its own. It is sassy, bold, unconventional, and unique, just like me, just like all of us!”
According to O’Day, this cultural mix is a growing trend at fairs and also at restaurants.
“We are seeing restaurant tastings in many cities that are being done as drive-throughs,” she notes, “and many are emphasizing foods on a stick so that patrons can pick them up as they drive by.”
Seeing the lack of edible sticks as a problem (particularly in the vegan community), Lumpkins channeled this stick-y passion into her jackfruit-based “chicken” on-a-stick treats. Like any good entrepreneur, Lumpkins started creating and selling them out of her home, but now works with local commissary Commonwealth Kitchen and sells at restaurants and festivals throughout the area, including Boston’s famed Vegetarian Food Festival and the Vegan Masquerade Ball.
“Why stop at the outer deliciousness?” she asks. “Why not invite the stick to the mouth party!”
While most items on-a-stick go into the mouth, the realm of entry has expanded so that some items are fed directly to the brain.
Christopher Danielson is a Minnesota curriculum developer whose popular program Talking Math with Kids has expanded on the fairgrounds into a new interactive program called Math On-a-Stick.
“On-A-Stick grew out of wanting to help parents to support their children’s math learning in ways that parallel literacy,” Danielson explains, noting how the program is especially effective at countering alleged math phobias (especially among parents) with fun math-based offerings that, like so many other things at the Fair, can be taken with you.
When asked who inspired him, Danielson recalls visiting the Alphabet Forest (a literary adventure space that was created by local children’s book author Deb Fraser) with his then seven-year-old daughter,
“As soon as I walked in there,” he says, “I knew I needed to build the math version.” In just one year, Danielson designed his program and pitched it to the Fair and the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics, “and the next year we were up and running!”
The one issue that remained was coming up with a title.
“The Minnesota State Fair is famously home to a wide variety of foods on-a-stick,” Danielson reasons (noting that the Minnesota Fair is so serious about foods on-a-stick that they have “On-A-Stick” codified in their style guide with hyphens and capitalization being mandatory), “so I went with Math On-A-Stick, fully expecting that once we got far enough down the line, someone would say, ‘OK. Now, what are we really going to call this thing?’ But no one ever objected and so it stuck!”
Going back to Greek delights on sticks, Lumpkins’ neighbors at Farm Grill and Rotisserie in Newton, MA, have been perfecting the traditional kebab for 25 years.
“When I visited Greece as a child,” says Alex Iliades (who, like Karnis, is the son of the venue’s founding father), “kebabs were sold everywhere as street food. They were great for a quick, easy bite to satisfy your hunger and go about your day.” Inspired by an old family recipe, Alex marinates his kebabs for a minimum of 48 hours, using spices imported from Greece that are also sold at his sister shop, the Greek International Food Market in West Roxbury, MA.
“We cook our kebabs over a strong grill with a lot of heat to give them a nice char,” Iliades says, suggesting that the “beauty” of having the meat and vegetables on individual skewers come both from the blending of the flavors and the efficiency of the cooking process.
“We can flip everything at once,” he observes, “and all the ingredients cook uniformly!”
So perhaps the food-on-a-stick thing is good for the creators as well as the customers! This would at least partially explain the explosion of on-a-stick offerings.
Since 2010, Thuy-Vy Bui has been selling her eggroll on-a-stick at the Minnesota Fair and elsewhere.
“We wanted to be able to bring a fan favorite out to the greater parts of Minnesota,” Vy Bui explains, “as many of the original customers at our restaurants have since retired and moved further out from the cities.”
Starting at the Olmstead County Fair in Rochester, MN, Vy Bui maintains that the eggroll was an instant hit because “people in Minnesota are totally used to seeing food-on-a-stick”
Echoing Vy Bui, Fried Fruit and Olives co-owner Carol Helmer (who, like Karnis and Iliades, comes from a line of food makers and seems stuck on the on-a-stick format) attests that, “people…at events are always looking for foods that are easy to eat while walking around…not real messy, easy to share and not very filling so they can taste all the amazing foods.” Perhaps this is why her relatively healthy helpings are so popular and have been for 30 years.
“This is what on- a-stick provides,” she continues. “It’s fun and not something you typically eat at home.”
Helmer goes so far as to suggest that many people make the hunt for stuck foods the main attraction at the fair.
“People actually…try to eat everything at an event that comes on-a-stick,” she suggests, “or they have a contest of how many sticks of your product they can eat in one day. It is all about a unique fun experience!