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Variations on a theme: Searching for the strange and unusual

August 23, 2011

This thing we call life, you may have observed, inspires a whole lot of searches. For most, there is a search for Mr. or Mrs. Right, a search for greater faith, and a search for meaningful work. There are also important searches for the basics of life – the right house, clothes that fit, and nourishment for our bodies. 
Don’t worry - I’m not fixin’ to get too deep and serious here, because in my world, food searches tend towards the strange and unusual. It might be a totally different, never-before-experienced ingredient (remember the tongue taco?) or it could be a new and exciting way of preparing something common (remember the tongue taco?). 
Locally, I satisfy that search by ordering daily specials, or trying variations on favorite themes (like fish tacos or shrimp and grits.) When I go on vacation and am eating outside the box, I take my search to the n-th degree.
Even in gas stations I’m looking for the latest variation of Kit-Kat bar, local sodas with limited distribution, and exotically-flavored sunflower seeds.  On the way to North Carolina this year, we took a pit stop at a place that had a huge self-serve island of hot food – mostly variations on the theme of “hot dog.” My choice was a hot-dog-shaped cheeseburger. The tube steak was indeed tubular-shaped, but composed of ground beef (we choose to believe that) with little dots of cheese strewn throughout.  It was … not bad. I don’t know whether to call it a ham-dog or a hot-burger, but either way, it will not be putting any burger shacks out of business. It was at least a creative idea, and with a bit more seasoning, quality meat and the right condiments, it might be fun to try at a tailgate this fall. 
I have been lucky this season at the Starkville Community Market in finding fun and exciting veggie variations: patty-pan squash in all sizes and colors, skinny white eggplants, cucumbers that were yellow because that’s the way God made them, and Hubbard squash. 
On vacation, however, there are opportunities to explore different growing regions, which can lead to all sorts of other interesting finds. The truck market at the Columbus, N.C. Fabulous 4th festival was the now historic site where I tasted my first donut peach. This oddity looks like someone took a regular peach and pressed down until it became the size and shape of an average donut, with the stem in the center where the donut hole would be. A couple of trucks over, they were selling bright yellow zucchini– the shape of a standard green zucchini but the amplified color of a yellow crookneck squash. Similar flavors, but much more fun to look at.
At the same festival, my focus was on a search of another kind. It is no secret to regular readers of this column that I am an aficionado of all things fried. But I am not the guy who always orders the fried chicken fingers no matter where he eats – I leave that to two other family members, who generally default to fingers if spaghetti and meatballs or baked potato with cheese and bacon on the side are unavailable. I want the deep-fried grits cakes, green beans, and pimento cheese balls. I do enjoy a funnel cake and corn dog from time to time, but I prefer to spend my calories on the weird.  In Columbus that day, I had just run the Firecracker 5k the same morning, so I felt justified in eating pretty well whatever I wanted. I like balance. 
The half-dozen food vendors at this block-long fair all got this question – what are you frying today? I particularly asked if anybody was frying butter or Kool-Aid, but most were sticking to “safe” stand-by’s. I finally had to settle for the only truck bold enough to be frying candy bars, and tried for the first time a deep fried Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I figured it would be the perfect marriage – my favorite candy and my favorite cooking technique. 
The first cup, I must confess was underwhelming, but in the name of good food reporting, I plunged on to the second cup, and it was a much more satisfying experience. The first bites, I soon realized, were still too fresh out of the fryer. 
The second cup was just the right temperature and combination of crunchy batter, salty peanut butter, and sweet, slightly melted chocolate.  The classic commercial revisited: Hey, you got your peanut butter cup in my deep fryer – No, you got your funnel cake batter on my peanut butter cup!  Oh, yeah. 

Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at eatsoneate@gmail.com.

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