When 1920s-era Eastern States Exposition fairgoers got a first glimpse of fried chicken, thanks to a demonstration by a 4-H delegation, they likely didn't foresee future generations frying everything from candy bars to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to macaroni and cheese.
But in its 100-year history, the Big E in West Springfield has evolved from an agricultural showcase to a massive fair celebrating the heritage, products and traditions of all six New England states, in addition to renowned entertainment acts, shopping, livestock and parades. The 17-day annual event, though, has perhaps become best known as a place to eat. And eat. And eat some more.
Visitors throw dietary caution to the wind as each year presents an increasingly dizzying variety of fair foods, from classic fried dough, corn dogs and candy apples to full lobster dinners, one-pound meatballs and chocolate-covered bacon.
The Big E's beginnings always included a focus on food, as chronicled in a new hardcover pictorial book, "Eastern States Exposition Centennial: A Century of Fun at The Big E" (Pediment Publishing; $44.95), authored by Wayne Phaneuf, executive editor of the Springfield Republican. The book was produced in partnership with the Eastern States Exposition.
Early fairgoers enjoyed "social whirls," produced by Springfield's own Kibbe Candy Company, which Eastern States Exposition marketing director Noreen Tassinari likened to swirled caramel creams. In the early 1940s, an exhibitor showed off a new blender-like appliance called "Drink a Banana," she said, giving visitors a look at "retro smoothies." Loaded baked potatoes have long been an attraction in the Maine state building, drawing such big lines that fair organizers had to make changes to the building to accommodate crowds.
From 1997 until 2008, the Big E regularly booked nationally-known chefs, including Todd English, Martin Yan, Mario Batali and Giada De Laurentiis, for live cooking demonstrations at its Harvest New England Kitchen. At that time, "food as entertainment was really sort of taking hold," Tassinari said.
Once The Big E reached the 21st century, fair organizers began to introduce new and progressively more outrageous foods, capitalizing on social media's viral capability to create buzz. Here's a look back at some of the more recent menu items that have hit it big.
2002: Big E Cream Puff
"Our goal with the cream puffs was to establish an iconic Big E food item," Tassinari said. They borrowed the idea — and the recipe — from the Wisconsin State Fair and entrusted it to longtime vendors Ray and Dolores Billie, who set up the Cream Puff Bakery in the New England Center. About 50,000 of the sweet pastries are sold each year during the fair's 17-day duration.
Once the Big E team tasted the cream puff for the first time, Tassinari said, "we knew that it was going to be a big hit." They developed an entire marketing plan around the confection that year, and even sent a box via limousine to the "Live! With Regis and Kelly" morning talk show in New York (Regis Philbin was performing at the fair that year.)
His co-host Kelly Ripa, at the time pregnant with her third child, tasted the puff on-air and pronounced it "the best thing [she had] ever tasted," Tassinari said.
In 2003, the fair introduced the Big "E"clair, another staple of the Cream Puff Bakery.
2009: Craz-E Burger
The now-infamous bacon cheeseburger, which eschews a traditional bun for a split and grilled glazed doughnut, was inspired by a similar burger offered at a minor league baseball park. The Big E asked one of its vendors to execute it in West Springfield, and used Facebook — a relatively new technology for them at the time — to host a contest, asking followers to name it. More than 400 suggestions were submitted, including "Heart Attack on a Bun" and "The E-Normous."
The Craz-E Burger graced the cover of the The Courant's Thursday Cal section on Sept. 17, 2009, and went viral shortly thereafter, garnering mention in the New York Daily News and other national and international press. The concoction even enjoyed TV limelight as the subject of a David Letterman monologue and a rant by Fox News' Shepard Smith, who compared it to "the apocalypse."
"I think the timing was perfect; everyone was trying to eat healthy and it was kind of boring at the time, and this just struck a nerve with so many people — here's this outrageous food at a fair," Tassinari said. "Certainly, it resonated with people visiting the fair. They all wanted to try it. … That added to the [frenzy] because social media launched it, and extended its life some."
2010-2011: Fried Butter,Jelly Beans, Kool-Aid
A bacon cheeseburger on a doughnut is a hard act to follow, but a year later, the Big E was back in a big way: with fried butter.
Vendor Paula Cushing-Pote of Marion's Fried Dough found a way to deep-fry the dairy product, freezing balls of whipped butter and wrapping them in dough. The finished product resembles a dinner roll, and the melted butter drips out when the dough cluster is broken open.
Cushing-Pote's other new offering that year, fried jelly beans, were given the green light for 2010 after an off-season taste test over the winter, Tassinari said. She executed this by embedding the berry-flavored candies in a scoop of pancake batter, then placing the mixture in the fryer.
"We pronounced those amazing," Tassinari said, but an attempt at fried candy circus peanuts was not as successful.
In 2011, Marion's treated Big E fairgoers to fried Kool-Aid. Rather than attempt to fry liquid, Cushing-Pote created a dough of flour, water, yeast and the cherry-flavored drink powder, cutting it into round shapes and finishing the fried balls with sprinkles of sugar and more Kool-Aid powder.
2011: Hot Diggid-E Dog,Country-Fried Shepherd's Pie
The fair wanted to follow its successful burger with a hot dog, and tasked Captain Nemo's Galley, near the Avenue of States, with the recipe for a specialty cheddar cheese-infused, bacon-wrapped hot dog with barbecue sauce and a bit of bite from spicy coleslaw and chopped jalapeño peppers. Again, Big E staffers turned to Facebook for a naming contest; a Shelton resident, Heather Liebensohn, submitted the winning entry.
Fair organizers also issued a culinary challenge to vendors in 2011, asking them to cook up unusual items made with corn. The winning dish, the deep-fried shepherd's pie by E.B.'s Restaurant, later earned national exposure on the Cooking Channel's "Carnival Eats."
2015: Deep-FriedV-One Vodka Martini
The year 2012 brought deep-fried lasagna, 2013 was the year of deep-fried strawberry shortcake, and in 2014, vendor Anthony Martone of the Coffee Break found a way to deep-fry s'mores on a stick.
"If you freeze (anything) for the right amount of time and (at) the right temperature, you can deep fry it," he told The Courant at a pre-fair media tasting that year.
Last year, the inevitable happened. The Big E introduced fried cocktails, courtesy of Hadley, Mass., based V-One Vodka, which celebrated its 10th anniversary that year. "About four or five years ago, [organizers] said, 'If you ever fry a martini, it'd probably be one of the biggest things at the fair,'" V-One founder Paul Kozub told The Courant in 2015.
Tassinari said Greg Chiecko, the Eastern States Exposition's director of sales, came up with the idea and worked closely with Kozub to make it happen, introducing the fritters in cosmopolitan and appletini versions.
They're intended for a 21-plus crowd, as the "liquid" part of the confection contains the classic ingredients of each cocktail; the cosmopolitan recipe, for example, contains cranberry juice, triple sec and vodka. It's turned into a "semi-solid, semi-liquid" substance that's chilled before being battered and fried, Kozub said, likening it to a jelly-filled pastry.
The fried martinis are back for 2016, available at the V-One Craft Cocktail Bar in the Young Building.
2016: Blueberry Pierogi Sundae, Bacon Mac & Cheese Bites
This year also brings a blueberry pierogi sundae from the Moolicious ice cream vendor (a fruit-filled dumpling in a waffle cone with vanilla ice cream, blueberry sauce and whipped cream); German fare at the Wurst Haus by Springfield's Student Prince restaurant, including an 18-inch bratwurst; chicken and waffles by the Deep South Company; bacon-topped fried mac and cheese balls by E.B.'s; and the Dessert Ball, found at Storrowtown Tavern, the puff pastry from the famous cream puffs stuffed with ice cream and topped with hot fudge. Read more about this year's food options at ctnow.com/bigeats2016
The Big E runs Sept. 16 through Oct. 2 at Exposition Park, 1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield. Gates open at 8 a.m. Midway attractions operate weekdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. The Avenue of States (including the Connecticut Building) and historic Storrowton Village are open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The Crafts Common and most other special buildings and exhibits are open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. General admission is $15, $10 for children and free for children under 5. Passes and discounts are available. Information: thebige.com.