Ah, elephant ears - Spokane Interstate Fair’s greasy, golden, chewy, cinnamony, hubcap-sized carbuncles of sweet slippery joy.
Hard to believe any controversy could arise from high-fat dough gods that are gobbled with mucho gusto at our annual 10-day rite of gluttony and fun.
Yet a hiccup of discontent percolates along Ulcer Gulch, that aromatic row of fair food vendors where every gastronomic excess is hawked:
Corn dogs to cotton candy to butter-slathered corn on the cob …
The hubbub is about who is worthy to sell elephant ears.
The Shriners who run the Moonshriners booth were not just here first, they actually introduced the unctuous treats to fairgoers 15 years ago.
They say the fair promised them exclusivity as a perk for building a new concessions hut, donating it to the county and then agreeing to lease it back.
Tom Cameron peddles elephant ears along with funnel cakes from a nearby trailer. He claims the fair is plenty large enough for two ear barons.
The culinary squabble gives Paul Gillingham stomach cramps.
“I’m not gonna go down and fight out a big, nasty battle over elephant ears,” says the fair manager. Even so, he concedes the Shriners should be the only ones allowed to use the elephant ear name.
“I’ve eaten these things all over the country,” Gillingham says. “In some places they’re called Indian fried bread. In other places, they’re Western doughnuts. There are so many names it isn’t even funny.”
The one thing everyone agrees on is that elephant ears are at the top of the food chain at the Spokane Interstate Fair.
Take away smelly barnyard beasts, rides that make you spew and rip-off carny games. Eighty-six the displays of quilts, giant pumpkins and blender demonstrations.
Take it all, but leave the elephant ears and you’d still have crowds lined up like out-of-town salesmen at a peep show.
“It’s a tradition,” says Marilyn Long of Fighting Creek, Idaho. “I always get my ear before I see the rest.”
It was my pleasure to serve Marilyn the very first elephant ear of the season. She stepped up to the Moonshriners booth shortly after it opened on Friday morning.
Civic-minded Shriners asked me to see their ear biz and I jumped at the chance. Having gorged on my share of elephant ears, I’ve always wondered how many years these oily suckers have shaved off my life.
“They’re good for you,” says Shriner Bob Seiss, suppressing a chuckle. “No calories.”
Actually, after analyzing the recipe, nutritionist Mary Lou Dobler has found that an elephant ear isn’t all that unhealthy.
If you eat one raw.
Eleven seconds of deep-fat frying, she adds, turns each doughy glob into a 500-calorie gut bomb with a 27.5-gram payload of artery-clogging fat.
But who gives a cow plop about nutrition when you’re at the fair?
“I try to keep a low-fat diet, but some days you’ve gotta live,” says County Commissioner George Marlton between chomps on a particularly sugar-crusted ear.
That may be Marlton’s most sensible utterance since he joined our rube-infested commission.
There are other benefits to conspicuous elephant ear consumption.
Over the years, good-hearted Moonshriners have donated nearly $100,000 of their sales to the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children.
In 10 days at the fair, Shriners will turn a full ton of flour into more than 6,000 ears and sell them at two bucks a pop.
Volunteers work like slaves in an assembly line. After expenses, taxes and the fair’s 17-percent rake-off, the club still comes away with a mammoth wad of cash.
You can see why others would want to horn in on elephant ears. They’re not merely golden brown, they’re just plain golden.
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