When vice mayor JoAnne Mounce was 15, she couldn't wait to work at the Grape Festival. It was the mid-70s and for four days, Mounce would strategically batter and fry raw hot dogs in boiling oil.
"The trick is to turn (the corn dog) so that the batter stays on," Mounce reminisced about her first job.
Decades later, she returned for a different job.
On Thursday night, Mounce met Julio Camberos Jr., owner of Black Tie Gourmet, and Doug Gerard, former News-Sentinel food columnist, at the festival's opening. Their mission: To name the best eats at the 2007 Grape Festival.
Armed with sunglasses, casual clothing and empty stomachs, they were ready to make their first order - Lockeford Sausage. One with "kraut" - sauerkraut, that is - the other without.
They sat under the shaded awning, taking time to eat their sausages - perhaps not realizing how much more food they would need to eat before the night's end.
They each took big bites into the grilled meat and thick bun, but their eyes lit up in surprise of how hot the sausages were.
"It's hard to taste when it's so hot off the grill," said Camberos, who was the most serious and knowledgeable when it came to a food's flavor and quality.
They washed their palates with $2.50 bottles of Aquafina and $5 bottles of ice-cold Modelo beer that the concessionaire poured into plastic cups.
They walked by colorful trailers advertising shaved ice, pretzels, ice cream cones and corn on the cob, but Gerard was on the search for chili verde burritos that were rumored to be sold behind one of the concession stands. Up for just about anything, Mounce and Camberos followed.
Gerard finally found the burritos at one of the Negrette booths near the soft-serve ice cream cones. He didn't seem as impressed as he'd hoped by the tortilla stuffed with chunks of meat, chili slices, rice and beans.
Cambero noted that while the meat was tender, the chili sauce tasted like canned chilis. Still, he says, sometimes canned vegetables can work.
Next stop: The vegetables. But don't think the judges were going soft and trying to be healthy. These vegetables were covered in batter, deep-fried and dipped in ranch dressing (or malt vinegar). Battered and oiled, the mushrooms, zucchini spears and onions were a top choice for the judges.
"They're so crispy and light, believe it or not," Cambero said.
"They're not the least bit greasy," said Gerard, who was surprised that grease wasn't running down his arm.
The large mushrooms left Mounce nearly speechless.
"Oh my God. They're so good," she said after a first bite.
At Stuffie's Char-Broil, the judges swayed from the typical tri-tip sandwich and ordered riblet dinner for $10.95. At almost 5 p.m., the ribs still weren't ready. The judges were ready to move on when a cook cut two ribs from a rack still on the grill.
The judges agreed. The ribs were a rush job. Too hot. Too fast.
"Spare ribs have to have time to cook," Cambero said.
While still enjoying the coleslaw, Gerard asked Mounce her opinion on the people who say they don't go to the Grape Festival because it's the same thing every year.
"That's the point," she said. "That's the great thing about the Grape Festival. You can come here every day and try something new."
And that's her festival tradition. Before she even entered the grounds, she knew her top picks: Corn dogs, fried veggies and cinnamon buns.
At Fresh Delicious Corn Dog - where you can buy a corn dog the size of three hot dogs in one, Mounce got the bite of sweet batter and hot dog she needed.
"I feel like now I can do the rest of the festival," she said, noting that it's best with a dab of mustard.
The tasting continued with $5 tempura shrimp - something past judges didn't dare try. The verdict, however, was surprising. Except for the too salty sauce, the shrimp was hard to mess up since it was fried.
"The (more) fried, the better," Gerard said, speaking of all festival food.
The El Rancho booth distracted the judges with their wheat pallets (chips) that are only $1 for a big bag. They insisted on trying a monster taco since the competing Soft Taco booth gets the best reputation every year.
Gerard bit into the crunchy taco. Finally, Mexican food that was as satisfying as he'd hoped, especially since it was filled with diced meat, not ground beef. At $3 a taco, Gerard said he would absolutely buy it again.
• Deep-fried mushrooms, zucchini and onions
• Monster taco
• Corn dog
• Lockeford sausage
Even though going to the Grape Festival has been a tradition since she was a child, Mounce had never tasted the absolute fair food: funnel cake. Covered in whipped cream and raspberries, the Pennsylvania Dutch Funnel Cake came in fourth on her list of top festival eats.
"It's like breakfast dipped in whipped cream," she said.
Last stop: Ron's Pies, where people have been known to wait in line an hour for cinnamon buns covered in cream cheese frosting.
Between cinnamon buns, strawberry-topped cheese cake, banana cream pie and chocolate pie, Gerard and Cambero chose the cheesecake. Mounce went with her original favorite, the cinnamon buns.
With bellies full and with sights set on exploring the rest of the festival, the judges were unable to come to a final decision. They did, however, agree on the top five: Lockeford sausage, cheesecake, deep-fried veggies, monster taco and corn dogs.