In the battle between delicious and healthy at the annual Grape Festival, it seems healthy can win. But its victories are few and far between.
We took a nutritionist and an emergency medical technician to the festival's alley of food. Our goal? To see what options were available to those wanting to enjoy the fair without getting a stomachache.
Andrea Chapin is a registered dietitian with Lodi Memorial Hospital. Growing up, when her family attended a county fair, they generally ate dinner at home before. Chapin has virtually no experience eating greasy festival goodness, but was there to guide us in our search for vegetables, fruit and limited time in a fryer.
Mike Duggan is an emergency medical technician based in Stockton. He has both attended and worked at his share of festivals, and was there to enjoy the food on his lunch break. A favorite calorie splurge of his is a Lockeford sausage topped with chopped jalapeños. Both were eager to take in the festival, though Chapin observed the options with caution.
Our first stop was at a food stand new to the festival, the Aloha Diner. It offered Hawaiian-style barbecue items like garlic shrimp and pulled pork sliders.
Chapin selected a pair of Hawaiian chicken tacos. They weren't fried and they were served in reasonable portions.
Duggan ordered a plate of pulled pork on top of rice, with a side of macaroni salad and a potsticker.
We found a picnic table near the main stage and dug in.
At first glance, the tacos were more appealing. Red tomatoes, bright carrots and crisp coleslaw topped the tender chicken. The tortillas were large enough to roll the tacos into burritos for easier handling.
The pulled pork plate looked less than appetizing.
"It's kind of a monotone meal," said Chapin. "Aside from the pork, everything on that plate is the same color."
Duggan described the pork as tender and succulent, but it felt heavy in his mouth. Chapin declined to sample a bite. Neither were interested in the macaroni salad in a thick sauce.
Round one: Chicken tacos win.
The next stop appeared at first glance to be the most promising booth for healthy food options at the fair.
"It already wins. Compared to typical fair food, this is not it," said Chapin while waiting in line.
The Sleek Greek offered several gyros, from lamb to vegetarian to falafel, and Greek fries covered in tzatziki sauce and feta cheese. Everything was made fresh to order.
Chapin picked out a Greek salad, while Duggan opted for a grilled chicken gyro. We also ordered a square of baklava to share.
Duggan was surprised at the size of the sandwich once it was ready.
"This is hefty. It's got some weight to it," he said. The gyro held artichoke hearts, chicken, tomatoes, lettuce, onions and plenty of tzatziki sauce.
The salad was an explosion of iceberg lettuce doused in tzatziki sauce, feta cheese, onions, tomatoes and kalamata olives, with some pita bread and grape leaves stuffed with rice and herbs.
Both were enthusiastic about the sandwich.
"I would eat this chicken again on its own," said Duggar. And then he did, forking a generous bite of sandwich into his mouth.
The salad was hard to eat with so many toppings piled on.
"This is just a mountain of lettuce and tzatziki sauce, with a side of leaves," said Chapin.
The chicken gyro was a clear winner with its range of ingredients and easy-to-share size.
Baklava is impossible to critique. The small flaky pastry was cool and filled with cinnamon and spices.
The dessert got Chapin's stamp of approval for its small size and lack of an obvious grease trail. Duggan approved because it was delicious.
It was then that the nutritionist caught her first glance of the fair's famous monster-sized corn dogs. A boy at a nearby table was working his way through a corn dog larger than his forearm.
"That is the size of his whole arm! Or two large ears of corn!" said Chapin. "I've just never seen something so large." Her advice: Don't eat it. Or if you do, share. There's enough food on that stick to serve two or three adults.
The next challenge was a search for something tasty to drink. Beer and wine were a no-go, since we had an EMT in uniform with us. Slushies and lemonade were plentiful, but choosing those is basically like drinking nectar. (Delicious, sugary nectar.)
We stuck to a few chilled bottles of water. You may want to bring a big frozen bottle from home if you plan to stay at the fair for more than a few hours.
Finally, it was time to address the reality of fried festival desserts. We couldn't leave without at least trying to coerce Chapin into tasting a deep fried candy bar.
A snack booth near the midway answered our prayers.
The menu listed candy apples, churros, popcorn and cotton candy along with a trifecta of deep fried goodness. We took our pick from a fried Snickers bar, a fried Twinkie or fried peaches.
On the surface, the peaches seemed like the best option. It's fruit. But Chapin asked a few questions. Turns out the peaches are canned in heavy syrup and fried in the same funnel cake batter as everything else.
If you are going to subject your arteries to fried foods, you might as well go for it. We went for it.
Ten minutes later, a crispy Twinkie and a Snickers bar were handed out of the window. Each was covered in a healthy dose of whipped cream, and the candy bar got a drizzle of chocolate sauce.
Duggan and Chapin each picked up a fork and dug in. No hesitation. But they were divided in their final assessments.
"The Snickers looks like corn and root beer in a fried something. A fried fritter," said Duggan. He preferred the Twinkie, despite its solid crunch and brown interior.
Chapin described biting into the Twinkie as just eating oil. The Snickers has more to it, some caramel and peanuts to chew on.
Both definitely went in for a second bite, and then another. It seems not even health professionals can fight the lure of a true festival delicacy.
"I took one small bite of each, OK? If anyone asks," Chapin said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.