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Deep Fried on a Stick: Innovations in Fair Food

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The competition in selling food at fairs and carnivals is tremendous. Vendors seek publicity for the newest and most outrageous recipes to draw crowds. And since the fair is a once-a-year event for most people, they don't mind trying something new, even if it costs an arm and a leg and seems dangerous to one's cholesterol level. Here are some of the foods you might see at a fair near you.

Deep-fried Pickles

Atkins, Arkansas has been known as the "Pickle Capital of the World" for many years, as a pickle-packing plant dominated the town's industry beginning in 1946. Bernell "Fatman" Austin owned a restaurant just across the street from the pickle plant. In 1963, he developed a recipe for deep-fried dill pickles as a publicity stunt -one that worked, as celebrities sang its praises and the town began hosting the Picklefest in 1991. Austin died in 1999, and the pickle plant shut down in 2002, but his family still makes fried pickles for the fair every year. The recipe has found its way into other fairs, as well as restaurants and homes.

Deep-fried Bubblegum

Bubblegum is not food -it's a flavored toy you play with in your mouth. But a recipe for Deep-fried Bubblegum won the 2011 State Fair of Texas Seventh Annual Big Tex Choice Awards anyway. However, it's not really bubblegum. It's a bubblegum-flavored marshmallow dipped in pink bubblegum-flavored batter (if they can make toothpaste and medicine taste like bubblegum, they can flavor anything). The concoction is then deep-fried, rolled in powdered sugar, and topped with a spritz of icing. So go ahead and swallow it! Image by Ron Heflin/Star-Telegram.

Deep-fried Kool-Aid

It's not a drink dipped in batter that is fried, but the batter itself -which contains Kool-Aid powder. The creator of Deep-Fried Kool-Aid, “Chicken” Charlie Boghosian isn’t sharing the exact recipe, but it involves flour and Kool-Aid powder. And a deep-fryer. And possibly sugar. The ball-shaped sweet treats sold like hotcakes at the San Diego County Fair this year. Boghosian was previously responsible for the deep-fried Klondike bar and the deep-fried Pop Tart. Image by Jonathan Horn.

Deep-fried Butter

The ultimate in artery-clogging indulgance is Deep-fried Butter. Fair food veteran Abel Gonzales Jr. took his creation to the Texas State Fair a couple of years ago. His recipe uses the same trick as Deep-fried Ice Cream: coat and freeze the butter first, then fry it really fast. Gonzalez offers his butter balls in plains and in garlic, grape, or cherry flavors. But it's not really a new idea. Paula Deen had a recipe for Deep-fried Balls of Butter in 2007 (which contain cream cheese), although that may have been the result of a dare. Image by Kevin Brown/State Fair of Texas.

Deep-fried foods are popular because of their flavor and decadence, but putting food on a stick is downright practical. After all, it's hard to find a place to sit down and eat, much less a table to put your food on, at a crowded fair. It's also hard to find a place to wash your hands before and after eating. Something you can eat with one dirty hand while walking makes fairgoing much easier. A patent for fried foods on a stick such as the corndog was filed in 1927, and the idea spread through fairs over the next couple of decades.

French Fries On A Stick

The next step beyond a corndog would naturally be to include the entire meal on a stick. This French Fry-coated Hot Dog wraps a wiener in potatoes after it is coated with a batter that glues everything together. It was found in Seoul, South Korea, but should be offered at your local fair. Or you could make one yourself.

Deep-fried Stuffing On A Stick

Another recipe from Paul Deen puts a holiday staple into the realm of fair food. Deep-fried Stuffing On A Stick was a part of her show called Deep Fried Thanksgiving, which also included deep-fried cranberry fritters and deep-fried mashed potatoes with bacon.

Deep-fried Twinkies On A Stick

Now a fair staple, it is believed that Deep-fried Twinkies were developed by Christopher Sell of The Chip Shop in Brooklyn about ten years ago. Sell experimented with many sweet treats to go with the fish and chips in which his shop specializes (they were dipped in the same oil the fish was fried in). The experiment that held up the best was Twinkies. Clint and Rocky Mullin took the recipe to fairs, where it was put on a stick and became a hit. Here's a recipe that doesn't call for anything to do with fish.

Deep-fried Peanut Butter and Jelly On A Stick

Fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches aren't exactly new, as people have made them for kids along with grilled cheese sandwiches and Elvis' grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches. But dipping them in batter and deep-frying PB&Js broke into the fair scene a couple of years ago. And they are served on a stick because they are hot and can be messy. Here's a recipe you can try at home. It only lacks the stick, which is pretty easy to add if you want to eat them while walking.

There's no end to the odd dishes available at fairs, mostly fried and conveniently skewered with a stick so you can keep your dirty hands from getting any greasier.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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