The Best Carnival Food In America: Funnel Cake, Turkey Legs

Fried dough, cotton candy and everything in between

This July, Tasting Table celebrates the great state of American food.

To visit an American carnival is to step into an alternate universe of Tilt-a-Whirls, elusive stuffed animal prizes and endless booths of foods on sticks. Join Tasting Table's editors as we dive into deep-fried nostalgia and share the carnival foods that we love best.

The Dough-licious:

Churros: "Full disclosure: I did not grow up eating churros. I discovered them when I moved to California in my early 20s, where they were pulled fresh and hot out of bubbling oil not only at fairs but on the street, at public transit stations and at the beloved taquerias I ate at a little too often. There's something about the soft, light, almost-creamy interior of a churro—thanks to a buttery batter—that sets it apart from other fried dough. Then there's the way it's crystallized, pleasantly scratchy cinnamon-and-sugar coating sends an electric shot of sweetness to the roof of your mouth and directly into your bloodstream. Sometimes they're served with a dipping sauce, but who needs it? Give me one of those crisp, star-shaped doughnuts, and I'm good to go." — Karen Palmer, executive editor

Elephant Ears: "Most people are familiar with funnel cakes, the squiggly lines of dough that get piped out, deep-fried and coated with powdered sugar. An elephant ear is kind of like that—but a hundred thousand times better, because it's one giant piece of dough that gets stretched out, deep-fried and coated with powdered sugar, thus providing maximum surface area for both textural contrast (a soft, puffy crust and thin, crispy middle) and overall gluttony. In recent years, it seems as though the funnel cake has almost completely overtaken elephant ears as the fried dough offering of choice at most carnivals, but I am hereby petitioning for its triumphant return." — Jamie Feldmar, senior editor

Carnival concessions stand | Photo: Daniel X. O'Neil/Flickr

Funnel Cake: "If I had my way, fried dough would be its own food group. I brave the streets of NYC's much-maligned Feast of San Gennaro for the half-dozen bag of zeppoles (that's the smallest they come). I'll always opt for the frosting-free doughnut, and if I spy buñuelos on a menu, they're mine. But in my grease-soaked-carb-loving heart, funnel cakes reigns supreme, both for their spaghetti-like tendrils (easy snacking!) and the ensuing flood of memories of walking the rows of Long Island craft fairs with my mom, paper plates of dough in hand." — Jillian King, managing editor

Okinawan Doughnuts: "The kind of carnivals I grew up going to were less deep-fried this and rickety rides and more concentric dance circles of fan-waving grandmas and hot bowls of light chewy udon noodles. This magical place is obon, the Buddhist temple's summer transformation into an outdoor festival honoring Japanese ancestors, and only there could I find skewers of sata andagi, Okinawan doughnuts. A cross between hefty cake doughnuts and airy Hawaiian malasadas, these doughnuts are craggy and crackly on the outside and fluffy on the inside and just sweet enough—no extra powdered sugar dusting needed. Sure beats funnel cake in my book." — Elyse Inamine, editor

Texas Pecan Rolls: "The real treasures of Southern carnivals lie in cast-iron-baked giant Texas Pecan Rolls served hot out of the oven. These have proved hard to find north of the Arkansas River, but the piping hot layers of sticky dough swirled with cinnamon, sugar and pecans were always the highlight of the ferris wheel-riding, ring-tossing days of my youth." — Katie Foster, photo team

Fried cheese curds | Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

The Fried-and-True:

Fried Cheese Curds: "Cheese curds are little squiggly-shaped pieces of (usually cheddar) cheese that squeak when you eat them, and though they're very popular all over the Midwest just as they are, they're even more popular deep-fried at fairs. I've seen the line for fried cheese curds stretch all the way down the street and around the corner. If you bread cheese curds and dunk them in a fryer, they become molten morsels of magic. Dip those babies in ranch, drink a beer with a silly name and it's pretty hard to have a better night." — Lizzy Saxe, editorial intern

Fried Pickles: "Fried pickles are the snack of the drunk, the Southern or, if you're like me, the loser who didn't win the milk bottle toss at the carnival. When you've had too much to eat and drink, a bite of this salty, sour, cayenne-and-Cajun-seasoned snack provides a tangy, crunchy snap that, along a dollop of mayonnaise and a Tabasco bath, just might cleanse your palate." — Andy Baraghani, food editor

A cotton candy stand | Photo: Josh Hallett via Flickr

The Sugar Shocks:

Cotton Candy: "My diet as a child consisted of two food groups: chicken fingers and sugar. Considering that cotton candy is pure sugar, it was (and still is) my dream food. I love the magical way it dissolves on your tongue, like a little pack of fairies dancing on top of your taste buds. And how it disappears so quickly that you just have to eat more to double-check that it's real. When it comes to pink vs. blue (their technical flavor names), pink is always the answer." — Abby Reisner, editorial assistant

Rainbow Snow Cones: "Shaved ice lacquered with rainbow-colored sugar syrups was the ultimate eye candy during scorching carnival days as a kid in Nebraska. The artificial yet delicious flavors of cherry, piña colada, blue raspberry and, my personal favorite, tiger's blood, a strawberry-watermelon combination spiked with coconut, always hit the spot. This flavor bomb was a sure cure to beat the heat and, better yet, didn't threaten to come back up after a dizzying ride on the tea cups." — Katy Peetz, kitchen team

Kettle Corn: "Kettle corn vexes me, which is why I love it. Popcorn is perhaps my favorite edible substance on earth. I have been known to see movies about which I'm only barely enthused just to get my hands stuck into a bucket, and when a friend once asked me what food I could eat an entire roomful of, I didn't even have to think about it. But it's salty. And kettle corn is sweet and salty. And I find myself loping and munching around the fairground thinking, Mmmm . . . salty. Sweet . . . weird. Mmmm . . . salty . . . And then it's all gone, and I'm slightly wistful in a very specifically seasonal way." — Kat Kinsman, editor in chief

Turkey legs | Photo: Ken Bosma/Flickr

The Mighty Meaty:

Turkey Legs: "For a long time, turkey legs remained a sort of mythical food, appearing either in commercials for Medieval Times in South Jersey or that episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes a jouster. So when I finally got my hands on one of these massive beauties, it was a bit surreal. Not surprisingly, it was slightly less appetizing in reality than in my dreams, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. That giant, drippy mess was easily one of my favorite 'meals' of Bonnaroo 2015 (and was definitely not a carnival)." — Dave Katz, senior video editor

Corn Dogs: "No one orders a hot dog for the bun. It's dry. It's bland. It's the flat opening act before the big show. The corn dog, on the other hand, is the ultimate marriage of tube meat and carbs, the embodiment of concession stand synergy. It's sweet and savory, and it's all capped off with that glorious crispy bit right at the base where the batter tapers off onto the wooden skewer. The original Thing-on-a-Stick, it's the quintessential carnival food and the best possible way to eat a hot dog." — Lizzie Munro, associate editor

Alligator Sausage on a Stick: "Aka chicken of the swamp. I first tried this delicious reptile in New Orleans and, like all of my favorite foods, it's served on a stick. Commonly seen at Jazz Fest, alligator is second only to crawfish in the pantheon of outdoor bayou foods. Don't be afraid; it won't bite (not anymore, that is)." — Saint Hereford, video producer