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Posted August 8, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Food at the fair: Healthy treats can be found even among festival fare

By J.R. Williams -- jrwilliams@nvdaily.com

Jimmy Gemmill stands in front of some signs
Jimmy Gemmill, of Baltimore, stands in front of some signs that advertise different menu items at the food stand where he works at the Warren County Fair. Dennis Grundman/Daily

R.J. Cooper flips hamburger patties
R.J. Cooper flips hamburger patties at the Ruritan stand at the Warren County Fair. Food options at the fair are healthier when consumed in moderation. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Nelson DeJesus uses a press
Nelson DeJesus uses a press to make french fries at the Warren County Fair. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Spencer Leighty, Melissa Ward and Kayla Graham
Spencer Leighty, 17, Melissa Ward, 14, and Kayla Graham, 13, talk about what sort of foods they eat while attending the Warren County Fair. Dennis Grundman/Daily

FRONT ROYAL -- Summer in the valley wouldn't be the same without the sweet smell of frying sugar lingering over the county fairgrounds.

With the Frederick County Fair in recent memory, Warren festivities winding down and the Clarke County Fair gearing up, plenty of hot funnel cakes will be eaten before it's all over.

But for the fair aficionado, that's a lot of fried batter, especially with a steak-and-cheese and a corn dog in between. It's certainly possible to eat well at the fair, but how easy is it to avoid the grease?

At the Warren County Fair this year, there's not a crouton in sight. The offerings are about what you'd expect -- dripping cheeseburgers and ribs, fat turkey legs, fried everything.

All delicious, no doubt.

Ruth Arcuri-Kovacs, a registered dietitian for Valley Health, said she polled her colleagues on what to do.

"We came to the conclusion that if you're going to the fair once a year, enjoy yourself," she said. "But don't eat everything, and don't eat the whole thing."

The food might as well be considered another attraction, she said. But the trick is to watch portions and resist the urge to "graze."

"We eat because it's there, or because we spend money on it," she said. "Anything that's not fried. A hot chicken meal, that's not so bad."

Jimmy Gemmill, 41, of Baltimore, can make that happen. He was helping a crew from Big Fat Daddy's catering set up shop at the fair recently.

Daddy's has been serving hot meals at festivals throughout the region for 28 years. But patrons don't have to live up to the company's name to eat healthy under his tent, he said.

Order a deli turkey sandwich with American cheese, lettuce and a fresh tomato slice. Hold the mayonnaise. To drink or for dessert, slide over and choose a fresh fruit smoothie, which Gemmill said he'll make without sugar.

"That's healthy, right?" he said.

If the temptation of the fryer is too great, at least all the ingredients are fresh, he said. Behind him, a co-worker was slicing potatoes for french fries.

But Arcuri-Kovacs maintains eating right at the fair doesn't necessarily require scrutinizing the menu. Regular healthy eating rules apply. Avoid super-sized sodas and the fryer. Stay hydrated by drinking water.

Unhealthy choices sometimes can be hard to see, she said. A seemingly harmless food, like a soft pretzel, can pack about 500 calories.

Eat slowly to recognize when you are full, and perhaps bring along something from home, she said.

"It's not impossible to bring food," she said. "Small things that you could fit in your bag. If you know you're going to the fair, you can plan ahead."

There are plenty of incentives. To burn the calories in one corn dog, she said, you'd have to walk 41/2 miles. How about a caramel apple, or that funnel cake? Three miles.

But "don't eliminate it, just eat less of it," she said. "Usually the things you try to eliminate are the things that you're going to crave."

Spencer Leighty, 17, who is close to entering his junior year at James Wood High School, was hanging out with friends at the fairgrounds. He said he'll be looking for food without too much grease.

"At least a hot dog isn't as greasy as a hamburger," he said, and thought about his health. "I'm fine the way I am now."

Still, Gemmill said he wouldn't recommend a hot dog over his Italian sausage.

"It's summer. Live it up," he said.

Events at the Warren County Fair continue today with a livestock auction, tractor pull, trade show, bingo and greased pig contest. At 8:30 p.m., musical guest Sammy Kershaw will entertain crowds, followed by a circus show and motorcycle globe riders later in the evening.

For more information, call 635-5827 or visit www.warrencountyfair.com.

Next in line on the summer fair schedule is the Clarke County Fair, which begins Sunday and runs through Aug. 15. For more information, call 955-3755 or visit www.clarkecounty fair.org.

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