Last Sunday Jacq and I made a little trip up to Springfield, Massachusetts to attend the grand New England spectacle that is The Big E. For those not familiar with The Big E aka The Eastern States Exposition, the best description I could give is that its a giant state fair for all of New England. It was like a flea market/trade show/carnival/state fair/cultural festival, all crammed onto paved fairgrounds. Imagine a small theme park, but with most of the space set aside for giant airplane hanger type buildings and vendors rather than rides. However we weren’t really there to soak in the New England culture and check up on the latest farming equipment or Sham Wow knock off, we were there to eat. First on the list, the official dessert of The Big E, the cream puff.
Why the cream puff and the eclair are the “signature desserts” of The Big E I have no idea, but its even got its own page on the website. So as soon as we saw sign for them, we followed, and got to a counter where you could see ladies actively baking and, uh, creaming. A nice older lady sold us a cream puff and a cup of milk, and I think I summed it up best when I said “well have you ever had a bad cream puff?” The pastry part was nice, crispy and somewhat chewy, while the whipped cream seemed like the real deal: nice a fluffy, sweet but not too sweet so that you can still taste the cream. The milk was a solid compliment and the puff was the perfect size to share. Now at this point I must mention that for me the strategy for the day was pacing. I’ve been known to gorge myself on buffets to the point of puking, so that day, knowing that many snack treasures awaited me, I decided to take it easy on the portions so that I could parttake in as much smashing as possible. Basically what I’m saying is that I could’ve easily eaten a whole cream puff myself.
An interesting part of the E is a little walkway called “The Avenue of the States”. Each state in New England has its own building along this avenue, sort of like a mini-city hall, and inside each you can find stuff about tourism, heritage, souvenirs, knick-knacks, and of course, food. And each state house is right next to the other so you literally walk out one door and into the door of the next, which was nice especially when it started to rain. I can bore you with more details, but I’ll cut the chase. We started at the Connecticut house where I was finally able to indulge myself in what was becoming the white whale of my gastronimical endeavors in New England eats: the steamed cheeseburger.
Connecticut might be the only state in the Union, let alone New England, where the steamed cheeseburger can be found. Looked down upon by many hamburger purists, the steamed cheesburger is just that: steamed meat topped with molten steamed cheese. Having been through Connecticut a few times, I’d never gotten around to getting the steamed cheeseburger, so as soon as I saw it available at the CT house at the E, I jumped on it. I ordered one as Jacq wasn’t as interested as I was, and immediately got to business. First reaction: shit was hot. Steam was coming out every which way and I had to take a step back and blow on it a sec before I went back in for a proper bite. Second reaction: shit was real beefy tasting. When you grill or make a burger on a griddle, theres a lot of caramelization going on, adding a lot to the flavor of the burger, but steaming the burger seems to give you just the beef, and nothing else. It tasted like biting into a ground beef patty, which is stupid of me to say because thats just what it is, but thats the best way I can describe it. It didn’t seem like the beef was really seasoned that heavily, and the steaming kept it pretty moist. The cheddar cheese, while awesome and melted, didnt really add to much flavor as the beef sort of overpowered it. I guess I should add that I ate it plain, no ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, nothing. Just meat and cheese. The Bottom Line: This burger tastes like no burger. It honestly tasted like a ground beef sandwich with some cheese on it, but that’s not to say that it was bad, because it was good, and I’d eat them on the regular if they sold these things outside of Meriden, CT. From the Connecticut house we walked to the next one, which I think was New Hampshire. The only thing I’ve done in New Hampshire was stop at the state liquore store and buy some booze, because they don’t tax in New Hampshire. Basically, I don’t think there’s much to see in the real New Hampshire, and there wasn’t much to see in the little New Hampshire. Next we hit up the Maine house, and it was there that we hit the motherload.
We walked in, slowly meandered our way to the back, and there we saw it: “FRESH MAIN LOBSTER ROLLS, $9”. Now I should state that the median price for all the lobster rolls I’ve eaten in my life, from Park Slop to California to Boston, is about $15. Even the lobster rolls being sold at one of the stands at the gate of The Big E was $14. So my first reaction was that there had to be a catch.
If there was a catch, it was that there weren’t freshly steamed lobsters being cracked behind the counter and the rolls weren’t toasted. That was it. Nice huge hunks of lobster meat, just a touch of mayo, all in a top-split hotdog bun. A solid lobster roll through and through, and more than worth the $9. It was good enough that at the end of the day we went back for another one. Following the Maine House we hit up the Vermont house, whose main attraction was Ben & Jerry’s. Now we’ve got nothing against Ben & Jerry’s, but we weren’t in dessert mode yet. We were still looking for those fine fine New England seafood delicacies, and the Massachusetts house next door delivered with that quintessential New England seafood delicacy, clam chowder.
Like the cream puff, have you ever had really bad clam chowder? Ah probably, but this chowder was solid. Nice and creamy, chunks of potatoes not too big, and most importantly, good-sized clams. If the weather was a little colder, I probably would’ve enjoyed it that much more. Last of the houses was the Rhode Island house, where Quahog was king.
Asides from being the setting of “Family Guy”, quahogs are a type of clam, and here it was being sold fried, in fritters, and in soup. We considered getting some bisque for a second, but I was kind of souped out after the chowder, and we thought about getting the clam fritters, but we’re not big fritter fans (too much dough), so fried clams it was. They were sold as “clam tenders” and I think that it may have been a different treatment from the usual clam strips that are fried up. We got an order of clams, a side of coctail sauce, and a Coke, and went outside to chow down on our final stop on the Avenue of the States.
Not bad, but not the greatest. I dont know if it was the batter used or the “clam tenders” themselves, but they just weren’t clammy enough for my liking, and the coctail sauce didn’t have enough horseradish in it. It wasn’t bad but nothing special either, making me wonder if we should’ve tried the fritters after all. They did have a nice condiment station however, with buckets of coctail sauce, and ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles filled with vinegar, hot sauce, and lemon juice. So that was it for us and the eating safari that was The Big E. There was tons more to eat, see, and do, from maple candies to carnival food, from horse shows to giant potato sack slides (which was the first thing we did), but I just wanted to give you the highlights. I didn’t know what to expect on our way there, but I definitely left happy, and it is definitely on my list of things to do every autumn. All these times we’ve gone on little excursions just to have, say, a lobster roll or some fresh clam strips, and there it all was, in one place, and the best part was that none of it was particularly shotty. It was all pretty good quality stuff. If you want to see some more photos from our adventure, you can check out my Picasa album, and on that note, I leave you with this, also seen at The Big E: