If there’s one thing that’s kept the CNE in the headlines in recent summers, it’s food, and especially the stunt foods that keep getting more and more outrageous. First there was deep-fried butter, then the Krispy Kreme hamburger, and now this year there’s a bacon funnel cake, which weighs half a kilo and contains more than two thousand calories. The one-upmanship doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop anytime soon, but I sensed a note of desperation in this year’s other culinary innovation, the éclair hot dog from Maple Lodge Farms. (As a friend of mine quipped, it’s like the R & D department at Maple Lodge sat around brainstorming improbable food mash-ups and didn’t stop until everyone puked.)
Of course, food has always been a big part of the CNE experience; it’s no coincidence that one of the fair’s most recognizable icons is a building with an all-caps “F O O D” beacon on the roof. What’s new, however, is that food is just about the only thing anyone talks about when they talk about the CNE. Here, the CNE is a reflection of our culture as a whole, which has become notably food-obsessed lately. And in fact, this year the CNE has made an effort to build bridges to that larger foodie culture, to reach out to “the young professionals who are out there in the blogosphere and Twittersphere,” as CNE general manager Dave Bednar told the Toronto Star. This means, among other things, a raw vegan food stall in the Food Building and a “food truck rally” of seventeen trucks serving foodie staples like pulled pork, fish tacos, and the inevitable cupcakes.
I’m about the furthest thing from a foodie, but I can certainly understand the appeal of all this diverse food thrown together in one place. On my visits to the fair this year, I’ve enjoyed a surprisingly good Caesar salad from the raw vegan place, a halloumi cheese purse from the new Lebanese place, a cupcake from one of the food trucks, an ice cream waffle sandwich from one of the more traditional vendors on the midway, and some Tiny Tom donuts (of course). Food is perhaps the one area where the CNE has managed to find the right balance between tradition and innovation, keeping alive the deep-fried and sugar-coated carnival food that makes people nostalgic, but also adding more diverse and contemporary offerings, mixing high-brow and low-brow like a carnival should.
But maybe the CNE organizers, like a lot of people these days, are asking too much of food. Is food really enough to draw the young professionals out of the blogosphere and down to a fair that costs $16 just for admission? More to the point, is food enough to justify the continued existence of a massive exhibition that calls itself the Canadian National and that was founded to show off the wonders of the world? The CNE has had a lot of fun with food in the last few years, but it would be nice if they could channel some of that creativity into the midway or the exhibits or the music or any of the other things that once made the CNE the world’s largest fair. Just imagine what the minds behind the Krispy Kreme burger could come up with if they were let loose in other departments!