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State fairgoers enjoy homegrown flavors

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Giving Ohio State fairgoers a taste of Ohio’s beef, poultry, lamb, pork, milk, wine and beer can be a daunting task.

Just ask Roger High, who, once a year, coordinates the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association’s booth in the aptly named Taste of Ohio Café at the Ohio State Fair.

“It’s an incredible puzzle, and it’s the program that requires the most planning of any program I run throughout the year,” said High, association executive director for 15 years. “You have to get your health certificate with the health department and a contract with the fair, order the lamb and all the products you need, and we need 12 to 16 volunteers a day. It takes a lot of volunteers.”

tasteofohio_icecreamAnd once the fair opens on July 24?

“Then it’s scrambling to make sure everything gets taken care of and finding fill-ins if someone doesn’t show up for a shift,” High said.

Still, all the Ohio producers with booths at the café say the yearly hassle is worth it.

“Anytime we can put a face on the industry and show people who is producing their beef — it’s just great for consumers to see people just like them preparing and serving it,” said Elizabeth Harsh, executive director of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association. The association hires Ohio beef farmers Jim and Jackie Murray of Xenia to run the café booth, as well as a second booth on the fairgrounds, and the association provides volunteers.

“We want to serve great beef items to fairgoers,” Harsh said. “We try to have a positive bottom line at the fair, but we also want to make sure it’s an affordable, appealing place for families to enjoy.”

For the Cattlemen’s Association, that means serving up 10,000 ribeye sandwiches and about 12,000 burgers and cheeseburgers combined at both stands.

Jim Chakeres, executive vice president of the Ohio Poultry Association, helps manage several booths in the café to showcase the state’s eggs, turkey and chicken. Last year those booths served about 15,000 fairgoers a combination of 900 Thanksgiving dinners, 2,100 chicken-and-noodle bowls, 2,400 deviled eggs as well as specials such as a chicken taco bowl, turkey ribs, chicken nuggets and hard boiled eggs on a stick.

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“We try to bring in something new and different each year to showcase the product,” Chakeres said. One year it was chicken and waffles (which had to be dropped because of the small size of the preparation area) and another it was an all-day breakfast of eggs, sausage and cheese on a slider bun with a maple butter glaze on top.

“There’s a trend of offering breakfast all day and we thought, why not?” Chakeres said.

Although the booths are staffed with some volunteers, the association mostly relies on 20 to 30 paid employees during the fair.

The American Dairy Association Mideast also has paid staff for its booth in the café, a much smaller version of its popular food operation next to the butter cow in the Dairy Products Building, said Jenny Hubble, senior vice president of communications.

“People love the café,” Hubble said. “It’s air conditioned and it’s a destination where fairgoers know they can get great food. We make sure consumers are getting good quality dairy treats and it’s a reflection of Ohio’s dairy industry.”

That includes ice cream, milkshakes and cheese sandwiches. Hubble said more than 52,700 scoops of ice cream are served on behalf of Ohio’s dairy farmers during the fair — this is a total of various sizes of cones/bowls sold at the Taste of Ohio Café and the dairy products building.

At the Ohio Pork Council’s booth, fairgoers last year enjoyed about 3,400 barbeque pork sandwiches, more than 1,000 pig wings (similar to a rib), nearly 3,700 pork loin sandwiches, more than 1,000 pork chops on a stick, 650 pork nachos and 700 pork wraps, according to communications coordinator Meghann Winters.

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Volunteers, including pork producers and members of FFA chapters, staff the booth, giving fairgoers a chance to meet the farmers and learn more about the pork industry, Winters said.

The newest groups in the café are the Ohio Grape Industries Committee and the Ohio Craft Brewers Association. Each began selling wine or beer a few years ago and featuring winery or brewery owners each day.

“It’s an opportunity to showcase another Ohio agriculture product alongside the others,” said Christy Eckstein, executive director of the Grape Industries Committee.

The café hasn’t always been a place to showcase Ohio agricultural products, said fair historian LaVon Shook.

It was built in 1966 for the Ohio Department of Transportation, which used it until it became the home of the Heartland Cuisine Show in 1988. Five years later the café was added, then known as the Ohio Food Pavilion. Cooking demonstrations take place in the café as well.

Taste of Ohio by the numbers

  • 12 to 16 volunteers needed each day per booth each day of the fair
  • 10,000 ribeye sandwiches and about 12,000 burgers and cheeseburgers served
  • 900 Thanksgiving dinners, 2,100 chicken-and-noodle bowls, 2,400 deviled eggs
  • 52,700 scoops of ice cream
  • 1,000 pig wings, nearly 3,700 pork loin sandwiches, more than 1,000 pork chops on a stick, 650 pork nachos and 700 pork wraps

The Taste of Ohio Café is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. for the duration of the fair, which runs July 24 to Aug. 4. Learn more at ohiostatefair.com.

 

 

Kathy Gray is a freelancer from Columbus.