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Fatty foods fit the fair

CENTRAL POINT — It takes 1,250 pounds of potatoes to serve heaping helpings of curly fries to hungry customers every day at Leonardo's BBQ cart on food row at the Jackson County Fair.

Workers for the Eagle Point business were busy Wednesday afternoon using power tools to drill potatoes into a cutting machine. Pieces of potatoes spiraled from the cutter into a pool of grease to cook for several minutes.

Each serving consists of three big potatoes.

"Oh my goodness," said one woman struggling to hold the hardy helping without dropping any fries. "This is like "… giant."

Although the fries are a favorite at the Jackson County Fair, they also are a giant source of calories. Let's assume each potato weighs about 20 ounces. Calorie-counting websites such as fatsecret.com and calorieking.com say 60 ounces of potatoes turned into deep-fried curly fries carry anywhere from 1,665 to 5,340 calories. They also contain 85 to 258 grams of fat and 1,822 to 13,200 grams of sodium.

But calorie counters are far from the minds of fairgoers searching for their favorite indulgences on food row.

"They like their fries," said owner Ron Leonardo. "And they like a lot of them."

They also like the fair's fried bread, fried potatoes, fried onions, fried Snickers, fried Milky Way bars and, yes, fried Oreos.

"Oh, they are awesome," said 30-year-old Miranda Frodscam of Central Point. "It's the fair — why try to be health conscious? It's not going to kill you."

About 20 food vendors also are selling yakisoba noodles, snickerdoodle-flavored kettle corn, cotton candy, pretzels, Philly cheesesteak sandwiches and 2-foot-long Italian sausages curled into spirals on a grill.

Fried and greasy food is part of the fair experience, says Fair Director Dave Koellermeier. Food and beverage sales totaled about $280,000 last year. Koellermeier estimated sales will be up this year from 2 percent to 6 percent, depending on attendance.

Koellermeier said the Oregon State Fair tried selling salads and fruit several years ago. The trial lasted just one season.

"Economically, it didn't work as well," he said, laughing. "It's psychological. It's like selling health food at a movie theater."

Michael Altman, a nutritionist and instructor at Southern Oregon University who writes a column for Oregon Healthy Living magazine, published by the Mail Tribune, also tried selling healthier food options at fairs.

For about a year, Altman and a former girlfriend ran a business in New Jersey called One Green Wave. He said the business sold salads and a speciality dessert made of organic chocolate, peanut butter, bananas and honey at several fairs in the state. The dessert was popular, but the salads didn't have much luck.

"After the fairs, we'd have to see how many friends we could give the leftovers to," he said.

Altman said fair food highlights how humans are hard-wired to crave fried and sugary foods.

"When sugars and fats were hard to come by hundreds of years ago, they became a treat to have," he said. "The smell of fat, sugars and salt draws our brain in. We're driven to love these things."

As long as high-caloric eating doesn't become habitual, Altman said, it's OK to indulge.

"People may want to just take a nap afterward," he said.

Medford resident Mel Amaro, 76, was prepared to indulge.

"I put the diet on the back burner today," he said.

For his wife, Mary Amaro, 73, the funnel cakes covered with powdered sugar and cinnamon were an easy sell.

"They just smelled so good," she said.

Reach University of Oregon reporting intern Josephine Woolington at 541-776-4368 or jwoolington@mailtribune.com

Bryn Lango, 8, works on a big mound of curly fries Wednesday at the Jackson County Fair. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore