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The US love affair with food on a stick

Fried twinkie Image copyright Wikicomms
Image caption Fried twinkies on a stick are popular

US politicians have been photographed eating pork chops on a stick at a state fair in Iowa, a key swing state for presidential hopefuls. The fair boasts more than 70 different varieties of food on a stick. What's the obsession?

It's hardly surprising that so many politicians were snapped eating grilled pork at Iowa State Fair.

The 2016 US presidential campaign is gaining momentum. Iowa is one of the biggest pork producing states in the US. And politicians want to relate to "ordinary people".

What is slightly more surprising is the pork chops they were chomping on came on a stick.

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Image caption Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton ate a pork chop on a stick
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Image caption Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush also went for the popular pork stick

A cursory look at Iowa's 75 foods on a stick suggests some foods are fairly stick-friendly.

There's sausage on a stick. Chicken on a stick. And corn on-the-cob on a stick. Cheese and fruit come on a stick. So do marshmallows.

But other options are more surprising.

You can buy hard-boiled eggs and honey on a stick. Deep-fried brownies, apple-pie and chocolate-covered cookies 'n cream come on a stick. So does fried peanut butter and jelly and tater dog (potato).

For the cholesterol conscious, there is even salad on a stick.

But Iowa isn't the only state that celebrates food presented in this way. The practice is popular at county and state fairs all over the US, according to food historian Dr Megan Elias.

"State and county fairs are the big entertainment of the year in rural America, and eating on sticks is a very American thing to do. It comes from a culture that's been around since before the 1840s," she says.

"It's food you can eat strolling around, and it fits in with another thing we do - competitive eating. The whole story of fairs is they are about displaying abundance - the greatest, loveliest pies. The biggest cows. The most crazy fried food."

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Image caption Republican candidate Rick Perry eats a veggie corn dog while visiting the Iowa State Fair
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Image caption Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump ate pork chop on a stick in Iowa

The classic food on a stick in America is the corn dog, says Rod Phillips, a professor of the history of food and drink at Carleton University.

"It's a sausage or sausage meat, dipped in batter and deep-fried. The sausage forms around the stick. A patent for this kind of thing was applied for in 1927 and granted in 1929," he says.

The patent cited that it was for a "combined dipping, cooking, and article holding apparatus" and was intended for "impaling" foods such as "wieners, boiled ham, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, sliced peaches, pineapples, bananas etcetera," on a stick, covering them in batter, and deep-frying it.

The corn dog was the first to be popularised during the 1940s - although ice lollies (known as popsicles in the US) and lollipops (also known as suckers and hard candy) were already around. Culinary historian Andrew Smith says Texas State Fair was instrumental in raising its profile.

Another US specialty is the fried twinkie, which is marketed as a "golden sponge cake with creamy filling".

Smith says there's been a huge expansion in the types of foods that are put on a stick over the past 20 years.

"Things like fried Snickers bars, fried Milky Way, fried pizzas and frozen cocktails have become common.

"Different states have different things, but they are getting more outlandish. One of the strangest I had was liver mush on a stick in North Carolina," he says.

Other states have favoured anything from meatloaf to nachos and smoothies on a stick at fairs over the years.

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Image caption Fried butter on a stick is one of the newer additions

Smith believes virtually anything can be put on a stick, as long as you have the right equipment, such as a way of freezing food.

Battering and deep-frying helps to consolidate some of the more fragile choices, according to Phillips. But he thinks there are some things that won't work without making a total mess. "Cheddar cheese, but not feta, for example," he says.

"I would have said 'good taste' might be a limitation, too, but looking at the Iowa State Fair list, I don't think so."

The state also brought fried butter on a stick to the fore.

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Image caption 'Nachos on a stick' consist of beer, beans and nachos - deep fried, with sour cream and cheese

But Phillips points out that the food on a stick phenomenon isn't exclusively American.

"You get some food on toothpicks [in other parts of the world]. Shish kebabs are Turkish in origin. There are many forms of chicken satay in Indonesia. People often barbecue on a metal rod. It's a fairly widespread way of eating food and a healthier way of eating food in some places because it risks contamination by hand," he says.

However, he concedes that Americans do it differently.

"It's some sort of extreme sport on a stick. It's 'what can I put on a stick that nobody's done before?' It won't be long before people will be eating cockroaches on a stick," he says.

That might be a delicacy too far for the electioneering politicians.

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