WEST SPRINGFIELD — The Big E is back and so are the crazy food offerings its food vendors are known for.
“Having the fair on the horizon is arguably one of the most important things of our lives here. Keeping the organization afloat through 2020 was almost impossible, so this is a great, exciting time for us,” said Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition, during an interview at a recent Media Taste Test and Food Preview at the Storrowton Carriage House Pavilion.
The Eastern States Exposition, home of The Big E, had to cancel the fair in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cassidy said the organization, as a whole, is looking forward to welcoming visitors from across New England and the Northeast when it opens Friday. The fair, which welcomed 1,629,527 visitors in 2019, runs through Oct. 3.
For the 105th edition of The Big E, currently the fifth largest fair in North America, the theme is “Big is Back!” and the fair’s food concessioners have taken the motto to heart. Among this year’s offerings are a bacon double cheeseburger atop a hash brown sandwiched between two Belgian waffles; a giant dill pickle hollowed out and stuffed with a bacon-wrapped hot dog before being deep-fried in a bacon batter; poutine topped with roasted red peppers and bratwurst; a “Bloody Mary” grilled cheese, fried cheese balls and a popover stuffed with slow-braised pulled pork.
The Speakeasy by Stanley, in the Young Building, will be serving specialty cocktails made with V-One Vodkas. The vodka, made in Lublin, Poland, began its story a Hadley basement in 2005, where creator and owner Paul Kozub, began making it in honor of his Polish grandfather and father. V-One made its Big E debut soon after and has been a vendor for the last 15 years, offering up such foodie favorites as the “Fried Martini” and the “Frozé” at the V-One Craft Cocktail Bar in the Young Building and at the V-One Fire and Ice Bar in the New England Center.
“The Big E has a huge impact on our sales. That first year, we sold in two weeks what we sold in two months,” Kozub said. “We’re celebrating our 16th anniversary and our 15th at the Big E. We’re now available in eight states.
“We like having the exposure to over a million people. Not having that exposure [at The Big E] in 2020 had an effect on sales.”
In the Speakeasy, this year’s specialty cocktail, Bee’s Knees, a prohibition-era martini made with V-One, Hadley Honey and lemon, will be served alongside the French 75 martini; the Mary Pickford martini; The Rickey and Old Fashioned cocktails. Also available in a limited edition V-One logo mason jar will be a Muddled V-One & seltzer, a drink made from V-One vodka with muddled raspberries and seltzer from Poland.
This year, the chefs at Storrowton Tavern are offering up a more traditional fair that includes Blackened Mac & Cheese — homemade macaroni and cheese with a blackened chicken topped with a crusted cracker crumble — and a Gazpacho Soup.
For food with more flair, there’s a deep-fried pineapple on a stick with coconut sauce from The Coffee Break in the Food Court or Wurst Poutine, a spin on traditional poutine, from the Wurst Haus on Commonwealth Avenue. This version starts with French fries smothered in a German beer cheese that’s topped with roasted red peppers and sliced bratwurst. The Deep South Company, inside Gate 5, is once again offering fried Arancini balls — rice balls stuffed with either buffalo chicken or cheese and deep fried in batter.
For the more adventurous, White Hut, on Commonwealth Avenue, is offering the “Biggie” Waffle Burger, a hash brown topped with a bacon double cheeseburger and fried onions sandwiched between two Belgian waffles and served with a side of spicy syrup. There’s also the Bloody Mary Grilled Cheese offered by All American Craft Beer Bar & Pub; the Stuffed Popover from the New England Craft Beer Pub and the Bacon Wrapped Dilly Dilly Dog from the Meatball Factory.
For those seeking a healthier option, Noujaim’s Mediterranean Food is back in the Young Building. This year, chef/owner George Noujaim and his sister, Noha Noujaim, are adding meat pies and a bread pudding with a cardamom cream sauce to their menu.
George Noujaim, who operates Noujaim’s Mediterranean Bistro in Winsted, Conn., said he’ll have his “Best Hummus Ever” (which has no fillers or preservatives) available as well as falafel wraps and lamb and chicken shawarma wraps.
Calabrese Market also will be offering up healthier fare in the form of caprese and antipasto salads and a variety of panini sandwiches.
Fans of The Big E Bakery’s signature crème puffs and eclairs won’t be disappointed this year. Not only is the bakery offering its eclairs and original cream puffs, it’s also offering the ganache covered cream puff that debuted in 2019 and a new pumpkin-flavored cream puff.
“It’s a celebration of fall,” said E.J. Dean of The Big E Bakery. “We’re definitely excited about the Big E’s return. There’s just something that comes with the crowds; a fun vibe.”
While you wait for The Big E to open on Friday, here’s a preview of what’s new this year:
MEAT PIES AND BREAD PUDDING
Noujaim’s Mediterranean Food | Big E Bistro in the Young Building
What is it?: Returning for their second year, Noujaim’s Mediterranean Food is serving up an all-beef meat pie and a bread pudding with a cardamom sauce. Also available is their signature hummus spread, “The Best Hummus Ever” with homemade pita chips.
Our take: I cannot get enough of this bistro’s fare. The meat pies are a satisfying treat, spiced just right. And the bread pudding is a heavenly delight topped with a light cream sauce that doesn’t weigh down the dish. I’ve been a fan of this venue since it debuted in 2019. Try the hummus, it’s delicious. But again, don’t take my word for it, go try it and find out for yourself if it really is the best!
THE BIG E CREAM PUFF — PUMPKIN EDITION
The Big E Bakery | The New England Center, The Food Court and Gate 9A
What is it?: If you’ve never tried a Big E cream puff, what have you been waiting for? This extra-large treat pairs a delectable cream filling with an airy pastry. This year, you can get it with a pumpkin-flavored cream filling in addition to the traditional cream puff topped with a light sprinkling of powdered sugar or with chocolate ganache.
Our take: Are you already tuckered out by all the pumpkin spice flavored drinks and treats? Not to worry, this new pumpkin flavor isn’t that kind of pumpkin spice. Instead, the flavor is more akin to that of a pumpkin pie flavored cream, light and airy and not at all overpowering. This subtle addition is another winner for this fair favorite.
DEEP-FRIED PINEAPPLE ON A STICK WITH COCONUT SAUCE
The Coffee Break | The Food Court
What is it?: Known for its deep-fried offerings — Pop-Tarts, Snickers bars, apple pie and pumpkin pie bites — The Coffee Break debuted a similar concoction in 2019, the Deep-fried Pineapple Upside-down Cake. This time around, instead of topping the deep-fried pineapple with caramel and a dusting of brown and powdered sugars, it’s drizzled with a coconut sauce.
Our take: Back in 2019, I wrote how the Deep-fried Pineapple Upside-down Cake was anything but cake-like, and instead tasted like I had taken a bite out of a fortune cookie filled with warm pineapple. Two years later, I’m happy to report that The Coffee Break has perfected this treat. This time, there isn’t a fancy name, just pineapple enveloped in a fried dough-like cocoon topped with a refreshing coconut sauce. If you like pineapple, this is one food I suggest you stand in line for.
Wurst Haus | Commonwealth Avenue
What is it?: This dish is poutine on steroids. Instead of the traditional cheese curds and gravy, you’ll get French fries smothered in a German beer cheese, roasted red peppers and slices of bratwurst. You also have the option to add sauerkraut as a topping.
Our take: It’s a little too extra for me. I’d love the fries with the German beer cheese (hold the other toppings) but I’m sure others will enjoy this pumped-up version of poutine washed down with a nice German beer.
“BIGGIE” WAFFLE BURGER
White Hut | Food Court
What is it?: Fans of extreme burgers will delight when they see the “Bigge.” It’s a bacon double cheeseburger atop a hash brown, topped with fried onions, all sandwiched between two Belgian waffles with a spicy maple syrup on the side.
Our take: I love extreme foods and this one is extreme! It was a little too much to handle, so I had to take it apart to eat it. I’d suggest trying it with and without the syrup. In all, it’s a fun food to try, but not necessarily a “must” on my list.
BACON-WRAPPED DILLY DILLY DOG
Meatball Factory | Avenue of States
What is it?: The Meatball Factory debuted the Dilly Dilly Dog a few years back. This year, they’ve added bacon into the mix, wrapping a hot dog in bacon before its placed inside a giant hollowed out dill pickle that’s dipped into a bacon corn dog batter and deep fried.
Our take: This is one of those items that shouldn’t taste good together, but it does. There’s just something about the combined crunchiness of the outer shell that pairs well with the dill pickle. And it doesn’t hurt that there’s bacon in the mix now. This is a sure bet for people who love deep-fried foods.
BLOODY MARY GRILLED CHEESE
All American Craft Beer Bar & Pub | Inside Gate 7
What is it?: Start with country white bread, then add cheddar cheese, tomato and hickory bacon. But why stop there? Take that gooey grilled cheese sandwich and top it with a creamy sauce that includes Tabasco, horseradish and chiles.
Our take: Because of my food allergy, I wasn’t able to taste this one on a whole, but the grilled cheese was on par with the best I’ve ever had. I heard, from others who tried it that it was over the top with flavor with the “secret sauce.” If you’re looking for comfort food with a kick, this is the food you’re looking for.
New England Craft Beer Pub | Avenue of States
What is it?: It looks like a baked potato, but it’s a popover stuffed with slow-roasted barbecue pulled-pork topped with grated cheese.
Our take: It’s a little hard to eat, but the concept is delicious. While it looks like an overstuffed baked potato (get in line over at the Maine State House for one of those), it’s more of an open-face sandwich sans bread. But it works — that popover makes up nicely for the roll you wish you had. And the popover complements the sweet, tangy barbecue sauce quite nicely.