“Do you want to do this?” Clarey writes in a forwarded email from the newly renamed Carolina Classic Fair. I scan it and the words “GUEST FOOD AND DRINK JUDGE” burn into my soul.

I respond immediately with a simple “YES.” Yes. Hell yes. YES, A MILLION TIMES YES. The vague “I’ve Got the Golden Ticket” melody starts to play on repeat in the back of my mind. Fuck the Pulitzer, the burgeoning journalistic dreams I curated as an 8-year-old have now been actualized and I can retire and operate a moderately successful laser tag center/puppy store in a suburban haunted house. I don’t even scan the date or time. I’ll make it work, like anyone with an almost clinical case of FOMO and a habit of overstretching themselves almost always does.

I arrive at the fairgrounds half expecting to line up outside the gates and be welcomed in by some carny version of Willy Wonka, smoking a Pall Mall and nursing a hangover. Maybe they’ll sing a couple of songs along the way. Sure, I can be Charlie. I’m teamed with the other writers and my internal Wonka soundtrack goes into overdrive. There’s the freelancer, the magazine editor, the influencer, radio guy, even a morning anchor.

Bellies empty, we are given clipboards and led through the gates.

I’ve never judged food, officially. I assume it’s a combination of taste vs. execution. Our first piece is from the Gummy Bear Guy. I was still in a daze from the pageantry one encounters upon entering a fair, so when I was handed a set of chopsticks and bowl of ramen, I didn’t think twice. Opening the styrofoam cup revealed noodles, and pieces of carrots and peas. It wasn’t ramen. One taste and my internal Grandpa Joe pipes up with “That’s not Ramen, that’s candy, Charlie!” The Gummy Bear Guy had expanded his repertoire and pulled a fast one: Gummy Ramen. And we’re off.

What follows is a whirlwind of the savory, the sweet and the bizarre. Next up is Chester’s and their fried-pickle nachos. We are handed what they called a quarter of an order; it weighs a pound. Glorious. I scarf it, while the influencer looks for the best lighting in the full sun. Radio guy, a longtime journalist and old friend, tells me to pace myself. Whatever, Wonka. A flash of Violet popping in a piece of gum appears, but I push it away.

Fried Pickle Nachos by Chester’s (photo by James Douglas)

We stop at Stone Cold to get a bracing shot of sparkling espresso, and we keep going. All good. There’s only six spots on the ballot. We’re good! Freelancer turns her ballot over to reveal eight more stops on the back. Shit. The 6 places on the clipboard they provided have a 1-5 rating system for Taste of Item, Uniqueness of Item, and of course, Presentation.

A plate of salmon tenders with a deep-fried crab ball over fries with more crab and a lemon sauce from a place called “Serving and Swerving” appears before me. It’s bliss. A mariachi band begins to play in the distance and I wonder about food hallucinations. We move on, all accounted for. No losses or strangely appropriate punishments yet. Grandpa Joe decided to take a quick nap.

Peach Sundae Fun Rides and Events, Inc. (photo by James Douglas)

Miller and Company pass out a small cup of lemonade with pickles floating inside. It’s surprisingly refreshing. The Pickleback movement has finally expanded to the masses. I start to flag. We see the mariachi band stop and play at the sheriff’s HQ and I sigh with relief that I didn’t imagine them. I’m handed a bag with pastry that resembles a loofah. It’s a sugar waffle from Ross Confections. I realize why it’s in a bag when I take a bite and am immediately covered in powdered sugar. Looking like a drug mule walking away from a car wreck, I follow the crew to the Appalachian Mountain Brewery tent to try a cider they had named after the Carolina Classic Fair. The pacing of the tour was starting to become clear. A drink, a savory and a sweet, repeat.

Sugar Waffles by Ross Concessions (photo by James Douglas)
James Douglas gets covered in powdered sugar while trying this year’s newest treats at the Carolina Classic. (photo by Tim Clodfelter)

We received a plate of breaded fish and Taki snacks that had been dyed with food coloring. One plate was a deep burnt orange while the counterpart was an aquamarine shade that made the fish filet resemble a freshly used bar towel after someone spills a Blue Motorcycle. Each color-coded plate came with its own color-coded drink, probably the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted, very similar to the thawed out Icee stick I would rip open and down as a child.

I make a mental note to go get some bloodwork done as we are handed a peach sundae from the place with the old John Deere engine that also makes ice cream.

This is now a marathon.

The Struggle Bus hands out a cup of an apple-pie macchiato and, despite my newly acquired lactose intolerance, I down it for the energy (and because it’s absolutely delicious.). From there, we go from a nut-covered turtle funnel cake to a cotton-candy funnel cake. The latter resembles a Smurf that was perhaps in an industrial accident.

At our last stop, I look around and we haven’t lost anyone. I accept the fact that I will not inherit the fair, or a great glass elevator.

I blink away tears as I’m handed a “Carolina Classic BBQ Bomb” from Fork’et Me Not. A mac and cheese bowl covered in barbecue wrapped in pastry stares back. I want to enjoy it, I really do, but Icarus has flown too close to the sun.

We say our goodbyes, hand back our ballots and I stroll back to the car, wondering where I can catch a nap before work.

Maybe there’s a song in it.

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