(This was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald about 10 years ago. But nothing much changes in show food. Crazes come and go, but Dagwood dogs and fairy floss will be there, perhaps forever.)
You wouldn’t even think about eating fairy floss anywhere except at the Royal Easter Show. Or – let’s go right down there – a Dagwood Dog. And while we’re on the subject of canine snacks, what is the difference between a Dagwood Dog and a Pluto Pup? To get to the truth about show food, you have to ask the show folk, or travellers as they often call themselves.
“I make the finest fairy floss in the world” said Bruce Brown, fourth generation showman, husband and partner of Doreen Brown, who’d been given her 50 years life membership badge from the Showmen’s Guild the night before we spoke.
“It’s got to be made with a gas fired machine” Bruce explained, “otherwise it doesn’t get turned into toffee first. The electric machines make shit fairy floss” he went on, his voice quivering with emotion, “they’re only spinning sugar, not toffee and it’s crunchy. Real fairy floss should melt in the mouth.”
The Browns should know. They’ve been in fairy floss for years. “An Indian chap bought it here first in 1928. He powered his machine with the bicycle he travelled on” Bruce said, “then my father Bill Brown and I began making it and selling it in 1938 when I was eight years old. Back then the machines were kerosene fired, and kids turned the spindle. You’d pay them with a stick of fairy floss and a toffee apple and they thought it was Christmas.”
“Now toffee apples were only made by the men” Doreen told us, “the hot toffee was too dangerous for the kids to work with. Pop Brown (Bruce’s father) and my father, Pop Green – they call us the coloured people – would heat the toffee up in a camp oven outside and dip in the apples. We used to dye the toffee with cochineal.”
Even after all those years, Doreen never tires of fairy floss. “I eat it when I’m making it” she says, “and I’ve been making it practically all my life. It’s a mystery thing, all warm and pink and wonderful. The sad thing is people don’t want it on sticks any more. Nowadays we sell it in cellophane bags.”
They’re a tightly knit group, the show folk, a floating village, with most marriages made into another show family. They might do 50 shows a year round the country, capitals and country towns – and maybe a few smaller fairs along the way.
Kathleen Miller, her husband Darren Miller and her sister Jackie are another long time show family. “My grandfather used to sell teddy bears to sailors during the war” she told us “before he started travelling.”
They operate a one family food court on Davidson Plaza near the cattle pavilions. There’s the Dragon’s Wok, The Curry Hut, the Greek Island Café – and an American Barbecue Ribs stand. All these stands are themed and designed by Darren. “It was a lot easier when all you had was fairy floss and Dagwood Dogs” he said.
“Darren and I went to America on our honeymoon” said Kathleen, “we visited a few state fairs and saw we needed more variety in our food. We bought back the BBQ ribs, and it all started from there. We’ve changed with the times” she said, “now we’re fully accredited for health food and safety.”
85 year old Dick Stevens, AKA Dicky Donuts, started on the show circuit in 1942. “I did chipped potatoes and hamburgers” he said. After the second world war, he bought two American Downyflake donut machines. “Paid £2000 each for them. Now I’ve got machines made in Seattle by Tom Bellshaw, the Rolls Royce of donut machines. I got one that’ll do 100 dozen an hour.”
According to Doreen Brown, the first donuts on the showground were made by one Gus Plush “That’d be 60 years ago now” said Doreen, “he’d make the yeast batter up the night before, store it under gauze to rise overnight, then early the next morning he’d make it up into little balls – they didn’t have holes then – and fry them during the day in oil from rendered suet (sheep’s kidney fat). He’d lift them out with a scoop, sprinkle them with sugar and cinnamon, and sell them at 2 for threepence.”
“People go to the show to eat junk food” said Dick Stevens, “they want something they can hold in one hand so they can keep walking. They fill up on Dagwood Dogs.”
(Every year I eat a Dagwood dog in memory of visiting the show with my father)
And they’ve been doing so since they were first made by one Dick Reilly in the 1950s. According to RAS statistics, 128,000 were sold – and presumably eaten – at the 2002 Show. And the Pluto Pup? The story told to me by many show people is that “a bloke called Turner” – first name unknown – patented the name Pluto Pup after Reilly started doing well with his dogs. Then he tried to patent the name Dagwood Dog as well. That didn’t work, according to Doreen Brown. “We just changed the name on our sign to Dadwood Dogs. But the patent didn’t hold.”
Dick Stevens reckons “you’ll go cold stony broke trying to sell gourmet food at the show.” But there are at least two relative newcomers to the scene who’d dispute that. Tom Wagner is a sausage maker, originally from Hamburg, who has been selling all meat gourmet sausages in a roll at Shows in Sydney and Melbourne since he won the Continental Sausages prize at the Sydney Show in 2000. There’s Bratwurst, Debreciner, Kranksy and others, in a crusty roll with a choice of toppings and – really flash – a scotch fillet roll with onions. And you can eat them with one hand.
We had one final question for Doreen Brown. Why, we asked, is fairy floss mostly pink? “Have you ever seen a white fairy?” Of course you haven’t.