Fortney: Stampede’s weird, wonderful and sometimes wacky carnival food

Merna Delaurentis

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This year, it seems that creepy-crawly things have gone by the wayside to make room for an explosion of offerings incorporating Cheetos, Doritos and other popular junk food pleasures

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To introduce his girlfriend to the Calgary Stampede, Evan Morcom took her straight to his favourite Stampede location: the midway food area, where they could sample all the weird, wonderful and sometimes wacky carnival food.

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“I wanted to show off the funny stuff first,” he says, noting Amanda Lidman, an Edmontonian, has never before set foot on Stampede Park. “We’re checking out what’s new, what’s interesting,” he says as he sips on a $12 non-alcoholic pineapple drink, in a real pineapple, while Lidman quaffs her watermelon drink, out of a, you guessed it, watermelon, with both drinks topped with a teensy parasol. “You haven’t been to the Stampede until you’ve tried some weird midway food.”

Along with the tried-and-true mainstays of mini-donuts, corn dogs, candy apples, lemonade and bannock (at Elbow River Camp), each year the Calgary Stampede puts on offerings that sometimes hit it out of the ballpark (2012’s Naaco Truck Naaco Bites) and others that make you squirm just thinking about them (2019’s camel pizza and monster bug bowl, complete with dehydrated crickets, larvae and rhino beetle, for instance.)

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This year, it seems that creepy-crawly things have gone by the wayside to make room for an explosion of offerings incorporating Cheetos, Doritos and other popular junk food pleasures. And, yes, there are pickles in and on just about everything.

Flamin’ Hot Cheeto Mini Donuts
Flamin’ Hot Cheeto Mini Donuts Photo by Calgary Stampede

Sure, you can still get deep-fried Louisiana gator bites and poutine in curious combinations (ramen-and-seafood poutine, for instance.) But this year, the stars of the show include such “treats” as flaming hot Cheetos mini-donuts topped with jalapeno cheddar cheese and a “cool ranch” Doritos hot dog, along with rainbow street corn, which includes crushed Doritos — all the crunchy bites holding on thanks to a slathering of mayonnaise and butter.

There are other changes for 2021 that have made the midway food experience like no other in Stampede history. Instead of looking to break attendance records, the Stampede’s decision to limit guest capacity for physical distancing also means hardly any lineups for food, even if you have a hankering for the always-popular — Why? Why? — giant deep-fried onion ring.

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While that may mean less clinking of the cash register over the 10-day festival, long-time vendors like Rob Reinhardt are seeing the glass half full.

“We’re just damn excited to be here,” says the owner of Prairie Smoke & Spice BBQ, the giant meat lovers’ joint that sports a crowded table of trophies on display out front of the booth. “I pulled out 24 briskets this morning and put them on the table,” says the Regina-based Reinhardt, whose recent awards include top prize at the 2020 Barbecue on the Bow. “Just the sight of it made me so happy I could cry.”

Rob Reinhardt, owner/pit master at Prairie Smoke & Spice BBQ poses for a photo in his restaurant at Calgary Stampede Grounds on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Calgary
Rob Reinhardt, owner/pit master at Prairie Smoke & Spice BBQ poses for a photo in his restaurant at Calgary Stampede Grounds on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Calgary Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Calgary

Still, he’s had some challenges just to get here and set up shop. “The cost of the meat doubled since January,” says Reinhardt, who had to take a leap of faith that the Stampede would even go ahead when he made his purchasing decisions back in March. “Usually we do the purchasing in January, but we decided to wait a little longer this year. It was pretty stressful.”

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Like Reinhardt, Akil Janassa also took a leap into the unknown by setting up his Tikka N Tequila food truck at Stampede Park. So far, though, the young Calgarian — who combined his family’s roots in India with his love of Mexican food to come up with his fusion idea — is pretty happy with the results. “It’s better than what we were expecting,” says Janassa, whose $5 bargain butter chicken bombs are among 2021’s most popular offerings. “If the weather stays good, I think we’ll have a good 10 days here.”

Anthony Cross, proprietor of Jamaican Mi Juicy, drove his food truck here from Vancouver in hopes that the Stampede would be his re-entry into his beloved business. “I’ve been coming the last seven years and was supposed to be here in 2020,” says the Jamaican-born chef whose jerk chicken bowl was the tastiest of all this writer’s midway samplings. “I had no expectations, just hoped for the best,” he says. “So far, so good.”

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While the jerk chicken and deep-fried patties from Cross are indeed delicious, sadly, some of what tries to pass on the midway for food doesn’t always resemble, or even taste, like actual food. My pineapple whip frozen concoction, while a very pineapply-yellow, had little fruity flavour and the ice cream was more of the “edible oil” classification of frozen dessert. A heaping serving of ramen seafood poutine was more about the ramen (similar to the $1-a-packet ramen in the grocery aisle), which kind of hurts when you’re shelling out $16. As for this year’s new pickled lemonade, it sure was refreshing on a hot day, but all that salt made you even more parched a mere hour later.

At least I didn’t have to pay to try the Flaming Hot Cheetos mini-donuts, since fellow midway food grazer Jason Dao was kind enough to let me sample one from his plate.

“I work out all year to get in shape to eat whatever I want on the midway,” says the fit 25-year-old. “I like when they try to do some different, especially with something like mini-donuts.”

Still, not everything makes the grade each year.

“My pineapple drink is pretty good,” says Evan Morcom, “but Amanda’s watermelon drink just tastes like watery watermelon. We wouldn’t recommend it.”

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