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Mac and cheese lemonade, ketchup ice cream among new wacky foods as CNE returns

A woman uses both her hands to hold up the 2ft Long Taco from the vendor Machette, during the media preview event for the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, on Wednesday, August 17, 2022. The taco is stuffed with Oaxaca cheese and choice of chorizo, ground beef or mushrooms. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

TORONTO — Squid-ink Korean corndogs, 60-centimetre long tacos and ketchup and mustard ice cream are just a few of the new wacky foods fairgoers can gorge on at this year's Canadian National Exhibition, as the 18-day event returns to Toronto after a two-year hiatus.

Vendors are doing their best to grab visitors' attention through monstrous creations such as edible "slime" and mac-and-cheese lemonade as the fair and its participants strive to bounce back from the financial setbacks brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"For some of these vendors, the CNE is the big paycheque of the year," said Darrell Brown, CEO of the Canadian National Exhibition Association, which runs the fair.

"It was a struggle for some of them to make it through (the pandemic), but the vast majority are back and they're anxiously awaiting the gates opening."

The CNE itself also lost out on more than $70 million in revenue and took a hit of more than $8 million after its 2020 and 2021 events were cancelled, he said. 

Earlier this week, Brown said there's a lot riding on this year's event, which starts on Friday and continues through Sept. 5.

"We think it's going to be a banner year for vendors, and hopefully for us," said Brown, adding that advance ticket sales are the highest the association has ever seen.

Along with the typical fair foods like hotdogs and poutine, vendors will be offering more than 25 new fun, fried and far-out foods, including Tabasco-topped ice cream and Flamin' Hot Cheetos burgers. There will also be a Celtic food truck festival, as well as other global fare and vegan options.

Those looking for a taste of tradition will still find familiar favourites such as waffle ice cream sandwiches and doughnuts. 

Violeta Correa, who runs Pancho's Bakery, said not being able to sell their signature churros and tacos at the CNE in recent years was a "big hit" to the business.

"Now we're back and we're so happy," Correa said. The bakery, which has fed fairgoers for more than seven years, created its two-feet tacos and other new Mexican-fusion foods to mark the occasion, she said.

Scott Dennis, of the B.C.-based Big Coco's Corndogs, said their featured food item -- a squid-ink corndog -- is a deep-fried take on the Korean-style corndog filled with cheese, panko, ink-batter.

"We had some other fairs throughout Canada last year, but it's been a challenge with COVID," Dennis said.

The ketchup and mustard ice cream offered by So Cute Ice Cream is already drawing attention on social media, even before opening day. Whenever they're not travelling between festivals, they're finding inspiration for new combinations, said owner Samantha Swift.

They're also selling mac and cheese pizza and spicy jalapeno pickle lemonade, among other things.

"It's great to be back at the CNE bringing new food experiences to people, and the energy is great. Everyone's excited to be back," Swift said.

The CNE is also touting a nightly drone show as part of its new features.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2022.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press