What makes state and regional fairs so popular? Some people go for the tractor pull, others go to be entertained by the gospel sing, and still others are attracted by barrel carcass judging. I, on the other hand, go for the food.
Despite its humble origins, fair food can be far from average. In fact, many classic American foods have their origin at the circus or the fair. For example, pink lemonade - according to legend - was accidentally invented by a circus clown-turned-drink-purveyor who made a batch of his beverage using a tub of water in which one of the circus performers had been soaking her red tights.
Regardless of their origin, many of the foods served at the fair are worth of an epicurean and none more so than the funnel cake. Food writer Ken Hoffman calls funnel cakes "the greasiest, slimiest, hardest-to-eat, choke-your-arteries, wipe-your-chin treat on the carnival midway." Of course, that's a substantial part of their appeal. But let's not forget that the funnel cake is not that far removed from the presumably more sophisticated French beignet, the classic New Orleans treat traditionally served with chicory-flavored coffee. Fundamentally, they are both fried dough, and that, obviously, is why they're so wonderful.
It's no wonder that there's hardly a culture that doesn't have its own version of fried dough. Whoever it was that first thought of throwing food into a vat of hot, bubbling oil ranks right up there, in my opinion, with the greatest of culinary pioneers. Funnel cakes are supposed to be a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty, but the truth is the Greeks were piping ribbons of dough into hot oil through a funnel as far back as the time of Demosthenes.
Whatever its lineage, the funnel cake is now a staple of fairs and festivals around the country. And though part of the enjoyment of funnel cakes is eating them amidst the atmosphere of the fair, one of the nice things about them is that you can make them easily at home with ordinary kitchen equipment. Cotton candy, on the other hand, requires a thousand dollar machine to produce.