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What Not to Eat at the CNE

We put the cronut burger—and other weird CNE food—to the test.

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We ate this for you. We hope you’re happy.

There are many classic reasons to go to the Canadian National Exhibition: the midway, the shows, the animals, and even the record-setting zip line. But recently, the meal offerings at the Ex have become an attraction in themselves. Every year, the food vendors have upped their game, coming up with richer, stranger, and more ridiculous combinations to tempt the masses.

From the deep-fried nightmares and bacon-wrapped monstrosities, to the impossible burgers and the Nutella-smothered jalapeno poppers, many of the menu options in the Ex’s food building stand as a challenge to anyone’s intestinal fortitude. Of course, there are plenty of perfectly reasonable, even healthy options for fairgoers who don’t particularly want to treat eating as a competition, but that’s not why we went. We were there to track down the most extreme, most ridiculous, and most grotesque culinary abominations that we could find.

We were not disappointed.

Here’s a record of our gastronomic adventure through the strangest and most terrifying creations the CNE has on offer this year.

The Jack’d
Vendor: Pull’d

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The Jack’d, featuring pulled pork, red velvet pancakes, and self hatred.

What Is It: Two layers of pulled pork sandwiched between a total of three red velvet pancakes, topped with syrup and a big pat of butter.

We had a lot of hope for this one: the photo was imposing, the idea seemed decadent, and the combination of savoury and sweet held promise. Red velvet cake items are popular at the Ex in general this year—they make appearances in everything from funnel cakes to ice cream flavours—so trying a red velvet item seemed like a no-brainer.

The problem with this “sandwich” is that the execution is just not there. The pancakes aren’t red velvet in any true sense. They taste exactly like ordinary pancake batter with a lot of red food colouring (which bled unappetizingly into the pulled pork, making it weirdly pink). They were rubbery and unexciting, and while the flavour of the pulled pork was passable, it was dry and bland. With little sauce and no natural juiciness left, it was sadly disappointing. The best part of this dish was the butter and syrup.

Should You Eat It: Eh, don’t bother. For the cost (over $12), the quality isn’t high enough.


The Chowdah Fries
Vendor: Jake’s Lobster

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The Chowdah Fries, which sapped our will to live.

What Is It: A plate of thick-cut french fries smothered in seafood chowder and topped with bacon and chives.

This dish actually looked totally delicious. The rich sauce, crispy bacon, and fresh chives seemed like a great combination, and promised to be a novel alternative to the many decadent poutine options floating around.

The dish itself was by far the most disappointing of those we tried, both in terms of how different what we were actually served looked from the picture on the menu, and in terms of the flavour. The chowder had an unsettlingly greyish sheen, and it congealed quickly on the fries. The chives were limp and flavourless, and while the bacon and fries themselves were okay, that wasn’t enough of either to save the dish. The flavour of the chowder was unpleasantly fishy, to the point where we were worried it would make us ill. Also, we were hard pressed to actually find any seafood in the dish whatsoever. Most of the lumps were watery potato, which was especially disappointing considering the fact that there were fries underneath.

Should You Eat It: Avoid at all costs. The chowder tastes like it’s prepared from a powder and the horrible seafood burps aren’t worth it.


The Cronut Burger
Vendor: Epic Burgers and Waffles

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Behold.

What Is It: A cheeseburger with a cronut for a bun, topped with maple bacon jam. You can add bacon and/or a fried egg.

Far and away the most hyped extreme item available at the CNE this year, the cronut burger was actually pretty good. The bun is a disappointing cronut, truth be told. It’s supposed to be a cross between a croissant and a donut, but it was pillowy and soft, and coated with a ton of sugar and cinnamon. The burger was a bit under-seasoned, but it was juicy and well cooked, and the cheese was a nice touch. The fat from the meat melted into the soft cronut, and that was delicious. The bacon jam on top, which was not advertised on the sign, was the least successful part of the dish—it was more like ground-up bacon and maple syrup. Overall, the burger was a bit too sweet to be perfect, but for something so decadent it was surprisingly pleasant to eat.

Should You Eat It: Sure, go for it. Make sure you order it with bacon, which will add enough of a salty kick to counteract the sweetness of the bun.

UPDATE: August 21, 2013, 2:45 PM On Tuesday, after this article was published, it was reported that twelve people fell ill at the CNE. Five were sick enough to need to be hospitalized. The one thing many of those who became unwell had in common? Each of them had consumed the dreaded cronut burger. The CNE closed down Epic Burgers and Waffles, and the stand remains closed voluntarily. Toronto Public Health continues to investigate.

We’re personally thrilled to report that we—neither myself, nor photographer Corbin Smith, who also sampled the burger—have so far suffered any ill effects, aside from some mild and well-deserved indigestion. We’ll update you in the event that either of us manifests super powers or discovers we’ve become a host to an alien life form.


The Peanut Butter and Bacon Milkshake
Vendor: Bacon Nation

© Corbin Smith

What Is It: A peanut butter milkshake filled with bacon bits and topped with a crispy strip of bacon.

This one came so close to being utterly delicious, but the execution fell short. The milkshake itself was near perfect. It had a good consistency, it wasn’t cloyingly sweet, and it had a rich, peanut butter taste. The full strip of bacon was crispy and delicious, and dunked in the peanut butter milkshake it was sublime. But the bacon bits failed miserably. Either Bacon Nation chose to use a ridiculously smoky bacon, or this particular batch was burned, because the bits left an overly dark, almost peaty aftertaste that took this milkshake from great to unpalatable very quickly.

Should You Eat It: If the bacon bits aren’t burnt, definitely, but there seem to be some quality control issues here.


The S’More Weenie
Vendor: Maple Lodge Farms

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The s’more weenie. God, why.

What Is It: A hot dog on a stick, covered in chocolate, rolled in graham-cracker chunks, and dotted with marshmallows.

Oh boy. Hoo. The s’more weenie.

Everything about this was just wrong. From the smell, to the look, it was by far and away the food thing we were least looking forward to actually eating. It bears an unpleasant resemblance to a turd on a stick, which made taking the first bite even worse.

Whereas all the other food sculptures that we tried over the course of the day were based on flavours that at least complimented each other or blended together in some way, these tastes stayed entirely separate. The chocolatey, crunchy hot dog just didn’t work. After a few more exploratory nibbles, we ended up eating the rest separately: we scraped off the chocolate, graham, and marshmallows, which tasted like a delicious s’more. Then, we topped the hot dog with ketchup and ate it; it was juicy and delicious on its own.

Should You Eat It: For the love of all that is good, keep away. Some foods aren’t meant to be joined in some unholy hybrid.


Shaved Snow
Vendor: Chilly Ribbons

© Corbin Smith

What Is It: An ice-cream-like frozen desert made of shaved ice, topped with fresh fruit and sauces.

This was a last-minute decision that we were so, so glad we made.

While most of what we ate was in the Food Building, this frozen confection was nestled in a little hut by the Dufferin Gates. Chilly Ribbons calls its frozen treat “shaved snow” to differentiate it from a lot of other ice-cream alternatives, and different it is. The shaved snow falls in feathery layers that melt instantly in the mouth, and because of the way it’s served, even a huge pile is deceptively light. The strawberry flavour, topped with little strawberry boba jewels that pop on the tongue, was pretty close to perfect.

Should You Eat It: Absolutely. It’s completely delicious and refreshing, and it actually made us feel better, after all the junk we’d mowed down.

CORRECTION: August 21, 2013, 4:50 PM An update to this post originally said, incorrectly, that Epic Burgers and Waffles was shut down by Toronto Public Health. In fact, it was shut down by the CNE, and it remains closed voluntarily.

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