Every January, hundreds of thousands arrive via car, bus and tractor at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the biggest indoor agricultural event in America. It’s part rodeo, part state fair, part craft show and part petting zoo. There’s a million square feet of activity, and all that walking around – plus watching cows give birth, cheering on sheep dogs during competition, and seeing kids turn the fluff of enormous bunnies into scarves – really works up an appetite.
The show’s food court has the motto “New Year’s Resolutions don’t count at the Farm Show,” and for good reason: Among the most popular offerings are whoopie pies, potato donuts and maple cotton candy.
Everything, from BBQ to ice cream, is sourced from Pennsylvania farms and orchards; this is the place to eat local (albeit not the healthiest place to do so). The food court’s profits go to statewide and national agricultural programs and research projects that make a difference in the lives of farmers.
This was my first visit to the Farm Show, and it took me two full days to sample everything that caught my attention (hello, mustard, red beet and buffalo eggs). The number of options was overwhelming, so I decided to focus on the best part of any meal: dessert.
This is a true Pennsylvania classic (though Mainers have some thoughts on that). Whoopie pies – a snack of thick, sweet frosting sandwiched between two soft, cakey cookies – have a long and treasured place in Pennsylvania Dutch kitchens. According to lore, Amish mothers would make the pies (which really aren’t “pies” at all) from leftover cake batter. Upon finding one in their lunch pail, Amish children would shout, “Whoopie!” The classic pie features moist chocolate cookies and white frosting, but at the Farm Show they’re available in a huge variety of flavors.
The second-longest line at the Farm Show is the one for potato donuts, courtesy of PA Co-Operative Potato Growers, Inc., the oldest potato cooperative in the United States.
The recipe for potato donuts has a long history, too. It’s a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, and it is everything a donut should be. At the 2017 show there were almost 300,000 sold. The potatoes in the recipe keep the donuts unbelievably moist and fluffy, and the fried crust is crunchy without being greasy. At the Farm Show, they come in plain, powdered, or cinnamon sugar varieties.
Apple Cider Slushie
The State Horticultural Association has a ton of apple products on offer, but the best, by far, is the cider slushie. It’s one of those things you taste and think, “Why have I never thought of this before?” It’s the perfect marriage of sweet and bitter, and while hot apple cider is a tried-and-true classic, I think from now on I’ll take mine frozen.
The undisputed champion of the Farm Show popularity contest is the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association’s milkshakes. During the show’s busy evening hours, the line for the shakes was nearly 100 deep.
This is not a trendy Instagram milkshake: there are no frills, toppings, or mix-ins. But it’s perfect in its simplicity, just three flavors – chocolate, vanilla or mixed – served thick, cold and creamy. In the opinion of Russell C. Redding, the Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture (who is rumored to have a three-milkshake-a-day habit), there is a correct way to order a Farm Show milkshake: both flavors, vanilla on the bottom, chocolate on the top.
Maple Cotton Candy
I hadn’t eaten cotton candy – or had the desire – since I was a kid, but the farm show’s maple cotton candy isn’t the sickly-sweet, bellyache-inducing, bubblegum pink stuff that leaves your hands a sticky mess. This is the world’s simplest cotton candy recipe – half white sugar, half maple sugar – and the result, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Maple Syrup Producers Council, is a mapley, pillowy poof of heaven.
The unsung hero of Farm Show fare is the Pennsylvania Beekeepers Association’s honey waffle. The story of the honey waffle’s provenance is almost too great to be believed. Ask anyone at the Farm Show – which has been happening in Harrisburg for more than a century – about the most memorable year, and you’ll hear about what went down in 1996.
There was an epic blizzard that year, which dropped more than three feet of snow on the city during the show. Vendors and farmers were stuck in the building for more than 24 hours, and when the National Guard arrived with food and supplies plundered from local hotels, they included a waffle iron and boxes of waffle mix. Inspired beekeeper Merle Fisher collected honey from his fellow apiarists and plugged in the iron, and the honey waffle was born. Today Merle’s grandson Jeremy Fisher runs the booth, which pairs perfectly golden honey waffles with specially churned ice cream (sweetened with 85% honey), and drizzled with – you guessed it – more honey. It’s un-bee-lievably good (sorry).